Huntsville Chief of Police Mark McMurray told the Huntsville City Council on Thursday that his department’s response to protests earlier this month was meant to avoid violence and destruction of property that was anticipated based on intelligence reports and what was happening in other cities.
McMurray gave a detailed play-by-play of his decisions in a two-and-a-half-hour presentation that included social media posts by local “antifa sympathizers,” drone surveillance footage and explanations of the police gear and crowd dispersal weapons used.
Responding to residents’ comments about “our stormtrooper police officers,” McMurray said that he replaced uniformed street officers with the riot-gear-clad Mobile Field Force on June 1 as the day’s peaceful assembly got “more and more riotous.” It is at night, he said, that “spin off” groups of protesters tend to become violent.
“The reason they wear the hard shells on the outside of their uniform — they wear plastic protective gear — is for their defense. It’s not offense,” he said. “It’s to keep them from being injured by things thrown at them in a disorderly conduct type situation.”
Huntsville police didn’t use the riot shields that were seen carried by other officers because those are meant for hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, McMurray said. His strategy prioritized maintaining distance from protesters in order to use as little force as necessary, he said.
Although officers apprehended a man seen brandishing a pistol in the crowd, McMurray called the June 1 demonstration a “great event” that could have ended on a good note. He showed a list of violations police had witnessed, from people blocking sidewalks and roadways to using language considered to be inciting a riot. But it was the failure to disperse for 46 minutes after an NAACP’s rally permit expired that prompted police to deploy non-chemical gray smoke. *Correction: This story previously stated that a curfew was in place in Huntsville. That was not the case. Police ordered protesters to disperse after a permit expired for an NAACP rally.
“It’s a smoke can, and our purpose was, let’s just see if that convinces them to leave. Let’s don’t put the CS [tear gas] on them first. Let’s just put some smoke. We’ll be gentle,” McMurray said.
Bottles were then thrown at officers, he said, so two cans of tear gas were deployed and the area was cleared of protesters.
With that experience fresh in memory, Huntsville police gathered an array of social media posts they deemed troubling, including some from people supposedly affiliated with the Antifa movement. McMurray said that in his time on the gang squad, he learned that gang members and wannabe gang members were equally dangerous.
McMurray identified some people as Antifa sympathizers by displaying slightly redacted social media pages. Some of those pages have already been called into question, and his assertions that some people shown were Antifa sympathizers have been denied, according to AL.com
“They’re defaming my character with absolutely no evidence in a live stream city council meeting with the vaguest attempt at hiding my identity but telling everybody what city I live in,” the man, Benjamin Shapiro, told AL.com. Shapiro denied being an anarchist, a member of antifa, an antifa sympathizer and said he never attended any protests.
“So what’s the difference between an Antifa and an Antifa sympathizer who wants to be recognized in the gang? In the group?” McMurray said. “You put the title on Antifa. I won’t.”
He said that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms provides intelligence on “all Antifa members” in the southeastern U.S. Antifa is short for anti-fascist, he said, and defined it as “a loose collection of groups, networks and individuals who believe in active, aggressive opposition to far-right-wing movements.” It comes from the anarchist movement, he said.
Members can be identified by a host of symbols worn as patches or appearing on their social media pages, McMurray said, adding that liking one of their posts is enough to be tracked as an Antifa sympathizer.
The Antifa movement first appeared in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s in response to the rise of fascists there, according to the BBC. The American Antifa movement has been traced to the 1980s, when a group called Anti-Racist Action formed to confront skinheads who were growing in influence in the punk music scene. It began attracting adherents again with the political rise of President Donald Trump and the alt-right.
The department was joined on June 3 by State Troopers and Madison County Sheriff’s Deputies. McMurray said he called in the State Troopers to protect against property damage to downtown Huntsville’s “valuable assets.”
The day’s events began amid heightened concern by police about an “organized Antifa-like effort” based on various social media posts, including a diagram titled “Protest Roles” that McMurray displayed. It shows positions and tasks for protesters to take in a confrontation with police. It includes forming a makeshift shield line, filming police actions, placing medics for injuries and “range soldiers” who throw things when police advance.
McMurray said police identified 10 of the 13 roles on the diagram.
However, the diagram McMurray presented on Thursday has been connected to protests in Hong Kong. Most of the roles identified on the diagram employ defensive techniques.
When crowds did not disperse on June 3, things escalated beyond what occurred two days prior. McMurray attributed that to the level of organization protesters brought this time, which he said indicated a desire for a fight. He noted the setting up of aid stations just beyond where the advancing police line halted. He said their purpose was to keep people in the fight.
“That means they watched our activity from Monday, and they’re using counter-intelligence, and they’re actually setting up their aid station just outside where they think our perimeter is going to stop,” he said. “Do you see how organized they are?”
Protesters who were there that day have denied the police chief’s claims.
After the police advance stopped, the crowd split into separate groups. In McMurray’s analysis, the situation — which he watched via drones overhead — presented a risk that his officers were vulnerable to a potential flanking maneuver as they advanced toward the Confederate monument ahead of them.
After commands to clear the area, which McMurray said were numerous but which many demonstrators said they didn’t hear, the crowd had not left and nightfall was approaching. That meant further action was necessary, McMurray said.
“You can’t avoid that decision when you’re coming up upon an hour and a half of noncompliance,” he said.
When objects were thrown at officers, police started firing bean bag rounds. Shot from orange shotguns, those are typically fired at the ground near people throwing objects in order to scare them. McMurray reiterated that dispersal agents are used “so we don’t touch you.”
Thirty bean bags were fired that night, he said. Five of them hit people. Huntsville police don’t have rubber bullets and did not use them, he said. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says State Troopers were only present as backup support and did not fire any dispersants. Yet some protesters displayed injuries they said were from rubber bullets. One woman had bleeding holes in her legs.
McMurray addressed the complaint that protesters were boxed in with nowhere to go because officers were blocking exits. That was due to a miscommunication between agencies, he said, and he cleared an exit when he found out.
Regarding the testimonies of dozens of residents at a previous meeting, he said that they weren’t lying but they did not have a full view of the events of that day. By sharing the perspective of his department, McMurray said he hoped to help everyone understand why police did what they did.
Council President Devyn Keith said that perspective was indeed the core issue. He acknowledged that patience was exhibited by law enforcement throughout the protests but told McMurray to consider the perspective of the people in the crowds he disbursed on June 3.
“Snipers,” Keith said. “Snipers on top of the courthouse. Those weren’t just snipers – UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles], barricades, bullet-proof vests, hardhats.”
The location of the protest was important to the context of what they experienced, he said. The county courthouse had been mentioned as the site of the protest several times during the meeting.
“Nobody cares about that ugly building,” Keith said. “It is a monument in the front that drew a crowd to converse about that monument, and that location became a synergy point.”
There were three law enforcement agencies seeing the protesters in different ways, he said. How and when they determined who their enemies were that night was when the rubber bullets came out.
Keith said that there will be people who “cry out in very uncomfortable and unfortunate ways” who need to be detained and held accountable.
“But in that way, as a police chief of the city of Huntsville, I urge you to be aware not only of your language and your stance, but that they’re not just looking at you – but that they’re also looking at snipers, they’re also looking at sheriffs. They’re also looking at State Troopers,” Keith said.
Thanking McMurray for his presentation, Keith said he wished there was a presentation by all three agencies.
Councilman Bill Kling said that residents’ complaints about lack of transparency could be addressed by better communication between police and residents.
Keith called for an anonymous online portal for officers and residents to report police misconduct.
The council tabled two resolutions that would call for a review of the protests by the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council. Those will be considered at the regular City Council meeting next Thursday.
Alabama DHR announces grants providing temporary assistance for stabilizing child care
The Alabama Department of Human Resources announced on Friday a new grant program to provide assistance to licensed child care providers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Temporary Assistance for Stabilizing Child Care, or TASCC, grant program’s purpose is to stabilize the number of child care providers that are open and providing services, as well as encourage providers to reopen.
DHR is now accepting applications for TASCC grants. The deadline to apply is August 7, 2020. The total grant amounts will be based on each provider’s daytime licensed capacity with a base rate of $300 per child.
To be eligible for a grant, licensed providers must be open or plan to reopen no later than August 17, 2020, and continue to remain open for a period of one year from the date of receiving the grant award. As of this week, 1,306 of Alabama’s 2,448 child care facilities were open in the state.
“We are proud to offer this program as a support and an incentive to an important sector of our economy. These grants will give the support many providers need to reopen and assist those already open,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. “This program is going to be vital for our child care numbers to reach the level required to provide adequate services as parents return to work. We have already made significant strides in reopening facilities over the past several months; in April only 14 percent were open while now 53 percent are open.”
These grants will provide support for paying employees, purchasing classroom materials, providing meals, purchasing cleaning supplies, providing tuition relief for families, as well as other facility expenses.
DHR recommends child care providers read all guidance prior to submitting a TASCC application. Child care providers need to complete the application to determine the estimated grant amount. Grant applications will be processed as they are received and grants awarded once approved.
An online fillable application is available for the TASCC grant at www.dhr.alabama.gov/child-care/. The application must include an Alabama STAARS Vendor Code in order to be processed. For questions regarding the application, please email DHR at [email protected].
Gov. Ivey awards grant for new system to aid child abuse victims
Gov. Kay Ivey has awarded a $375,000 grant to establish a statewide network that will ensure that victims of child abuse receive immediate and professional medical care and other assistance.
The grant will enable the Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics to collaborate with the Alabama Network of Children Advocacy Centers in creating the Child Abuse Medical System.
“Child abuse is a horrendous crime that robs children of their youth and can negatively affect their future if victims do not receive the proper professional assistance,” Ivey said. “I am thankful for this network that will ensure children get the professional attention they need and deserve.”
The medical system will be a coordinated statewide resource that includes pediatric physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and other medical professionals along with specialized sexual assault nurse examiners.
The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant.
“ADECA is pleased to join with Gov. Ivey and those dedicated people who are part of the Child Abuse Medical System to support these children at a time they need it most,” said ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell.
Ivey notified Tom Shufflebarger, CEO of Children’s of Alabama, that the grant had been approved.
ADECA manages a range of programs that support law enforcement, economic development, recreation, energy conservation and water resource management.
U.S. Attorney Jay Town announces resignation
Jay Town, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, on Friday announced his resignation and plans to work at a Huntsville defense contractor and cybersecurity solutions company.
Town’s resignation will be effective Wednesday, July 15, according to a press release.
“After much thoughtful prayer and great personal consideration, I have made the decision to resign as the United States Attorney of the Northern District of Alabama. I have tendered my resignation to Attorney General William Barr. General Barr expressed his gratitude for my service to the Department of Justice and to the Northern District and, despite having hoped I would continue in my role, understood and respected my decision,” Town said in a statement.
“I am extremely grateful to President Trump, to whom I also tendered a letter, for his special trust and confidence in me to serve as the U.S. Attorney. It was an honor to be a part of this Administration with an unrivaled class of United States Attorneys from around the nation. I will forever remain thankful to those who supported my nomination and my tenure as the U.S. Attorney,” Town continued.
Town said his job with the unnamed Huntsville defense contractor and cybersecurity solutions company is to begin later this year, and the company is to announce his position “in a few weeks.”
“The Attorney General of the United States will announce my replacement in the coming days or weeks,” Town said in the release.
Town has served in his position since confirmation by the U.S. Senate in August 2017. Prior to that appointment, Town was a prosecutor in the Madison County District Attorney’s office from 2005 until 2017.
Attorney General William Barr in a statement Friday offered gratitude for Town’s three years of service.
“Jay’s leadership in his District has been immense. His contributions to the Department of Justice have been extensive, especially his work on the China Initiative and most recently as a Working Group Chair on the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. I appreciate his service to our nation and to the Justice Department, and I wish him the very best,” Barr said in a statement.
The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019 notified Gov. Kay Ivey that the department’s lengthy investigation into the state’s prisons for men found systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs and corruption which are likely violations of the inmates’ Constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment.
Town’s office leads the discussions between the U.S Department of Justice and the state on the prison conditions.
Problems with violence, deaths and drugs in Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons have not markedly improved in the year’s since the U.S. Department of Justice released its report.
Alabama’s daily COVID-19 deaths second highest since start of pandemic
In the past two weeks the state recorded 190 coronavirus deaths, a 38 percent increase from the previous two weeks.
Alabama saw 35 deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, the second highest daily number of deaths since the pandemic began.
The previous record daily high was May 12, when the state recorded 37 coronavirus deaths. Prior to that, the high was on April 22, when Alabama saw 35 deaths from the virus. In the past two weeks the state recorded 190 coronavirus deaths, a 38 percent increase from the previous two weeks.
While cases have been surging since mid-June, deaths have largely remained stable. Deaths are considered a lagging indicator, meaning that it takes longer for deaths to begin rising after cases and hospitalizations begin rising.
“The fact that we’re seeing these sharp increases and hospitalization in cases over the past week or two is really concerning,” said UAB expert Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom earlier this week. “And we expect, given the lag that we know there is between cases and hospitalization — about a two-week lag, and a three-week lag between cases and deaths — that we’re on a part of the curve that we just don’t want to be on in our state.”
It’s unclear whether this new rise in deaths will become a trend, or whether it is a one-day anomaly, but the 14-day average of deaths per day is now nearly as high as the previous peak on May 14 — weeks after the state hit its first “peak” in cases per day in late April. The previous high of the 14-day average of deaths per day was 16 on May 14. The average is now at 14 deaths per day, on average.
The uptick in deaths comes after days of record-high new daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The state added 1,304 new COVID-19 cases Friday, down from Thursday’s record-high of 2,164, but the trend of rising daily cases has continued largely unabated since early June.
The 14-day average of daily tests was at an all-time high Friday, at 8,125, which was 308 more tests than the previous high, set Wednesday. The percent of tests that were positive also increased, however, so the new cases can’t be attributed solely to more testing.
The 14-day average of the percent positivity was 14.22 on Friday. Excluding Thursday’s figure, because the Alabama Department of Public Health didn’t publish total tests administered on Thursday, which threw off percent positive figures, Friday’s 14-day average was the highest it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic.
There were a few higher 14-day average percent positivity days in April, but those numbers were skewed as well, because ADPH wasn’t able to collect all testing data from commercial labs during that time period.
Along with surging new cases, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized on Thursday was higher than it’s been since the beginning of the pandemic. On Thursday 1,125 coronavirus patients were being treated in state hospitals, which was the fifth straight day of record current hospitalizations.
UAB Hospital’s COVID-19 Intensive care units were nearing their existing capacity earlier this week. The hospital has both a COVID ICU and a COVID acute care unit designated to keep patients separated from those who don’t have the virus, but it has more space in other non-COVID units should it need to add additional bed space.
Hospitals in Madison County this week are also seeing a surge of COVID-19 patients. Paul Finley, the mayor of the city of Madison, told reporters Wednesday that local hospitals were reporting record numbers.