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Huntsville police likely violated international use-of-force guidelines during protest, expert says

From the deployment of tear gas to the shooting of protesters with kinetic impact rounds — which include bean-bag rounds and rubber bullets — the three agencies that dispersed crowds in Huntsville a month ago appear to have violated guidelines.

Micah Danney

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Law enforcement officers advance toward protesters at a demonstration in Huntsville on June 3, 2020. (via David Capo)

The use of less-lethal weapons by law enforcement against protesters in Huntsville on June 3 went against international standards for the use of force in a crowd control scenario, according to a researcher who studies such incidents.

As associate director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, Mark Hiznay examines timelines of incidents where security forces use lethal and less-lethal force. The key moments he looks for on these timelines are the onset of violence and the first use of force by security personnel.

Sometimes those are the same point, and sometimes less-lethal weapons are used in ways different from what they were designed for, what training specifies or what international standards say are fair and humane. From the deployment of tear gas to the shooting of protesters with kinetic impact rounds — which include bean-bag rounds and rubber bullets — the three agencies that dispersed crowds in Huntsville a month ago appear to have violated guidelines.

“Using kinetic impact rounds as an area weapon to herd a crowd is abusive,” Hiznay said, adding that the weapons are meant to target individuals who pose an imminent threat of violence to law enforcement or members of the public.

He cited a set of protocols for less-lethal force adopted by the United Nations on Tuesday. The guidelines limit use of these weapons to situations where they are necessary for safety and proportional to potential threats.

“For example, force that is likely to result in moderate or severe injury — including when applied by less-lethal weapons — may not be used simply to obtain compliance with an order by a person who is only passively resisting,” the guidelines state.

Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray oversaw the police response on June 3, including the coordination between his department, Madison County Sheriff’s deputies and State Troopers provided by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. At a press conference the next day, McMurray said that officers are trained to use the least amount of force to disperse an unlawful gathering, but when protesters didn’t disperse after the permit for the day’s rally expired, police “had to become proactive.”

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“We kept asking them to leave,” McMurray said. “They brought this — this group brought this on themselves. They came here for the fight, not us.”

In his after-action report to the Huntsville City Council, McMurray said that nightfall was a concern of his because of the tendency of bad actors in “splinter” groups to turn violent, even after a day of peaceful assembly. He also noted the heat that his riot-gear-clad officers were operating in as they attempted to disperse the crowds, first with gray smoke and sound dispersal tools — and then with tear gas and kinetic impact rounds.

Hiznay said those circumstances are a recipe for abusive use of force.

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Using kinetic impact rounds as an area weapon to herd a crowd is abusive.”

“You get into these situations where the security forces are tired, hot — may or may not be being pelted by rocks and bricks — and panic to where the situation and the discipline breaks down, and you start thinking that these are the tools that you use to herd people or disperse people,” he said.

While Huntsville police and ALEA have denied using rubber bullets, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office has yet to publicly detail its deputies’ actions. Sheriff Kevin Turner has indicated that he will present an after-action report to the Madison County Commission in the near future, according to AL.com.

Multiple protesters have described being struck by projectiles without doing anything that could be interpreted as threatening. April Grubb was hit six times and left with bloody injuries, including a rubber round that embedded in her leg.

David Capo was facing the advancing police line and filming when he was struck in the chest by an unknown projectile that left a circular wound a half-inch across. By the time he got home that night, it had swollen to a welt four inches in diameter.

“It looked like I had a third pec[toral],” said Capo, 20, who works as a space camp counselor at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. He doesn’t have the money to see a doctor, he said, but he worries that one of his ribs might be cracked.

Such injuries are disturbing, Hiznay said, because the people who suffered them should not have been targeted and because those wounds can cause permanent damage. Of particular concern are cases in which people are hit from behind, which indicates that they were trying to leave and therefore were not posing a threat, and because they can result in nasty spinal cord injuries.

Hiznay avoids even using the term rubber bullets, given that various projectiles are commonly referred to as that, but the term doesn’t do justice to the severe bodily trauma they can inflict. The semantics lead to confusion in the public conversation about how they are used, he said.

There are no federal standards for use of kinetic impact rounds, so the U.N.’s guidelines are the closest thing to a defined set of standards. It states: “Kinetic impact projectiles should generally be used only in direct fire with the aim of striking the lower abdomen or legs of a violent individual and only with a view to addressing an imminent threat of injury to either a law enforcement official or a member of the public.”

Protesters stand outside the Madison County Courthouse on June 3, 2020. (via Sarah Myers)

The guidelines also address the problematic nature of distance between officers and a crowd. In his presentation to the city council, McMurray said that projectiles were fired to create distance in order to avoid violent physical confrontations with protesters. In his telling, this use of force was preferable to another.

According to U.N. standards, therein lies the potential for improper application of that force.

“The nature of law enforcement places special constraints on the extent to which force may be delivered remotely. Among other reasons, this is because distance is likely to reduce substantially the potential for assessing a situation that requires a law enforcement intervention,” the guidelines state.

They also call for accountability after the fact: “In the event of injury, a report should contain sufficient information to establish whether the use of force was necessary and proportionate, and should set out the details of the incident, including the circumstances; the characteristics of the victim; the measures taken to avoid the use of force and to de-escalate the situation; the type and manner of force employed, including specific weaponry; the reasons for the use of force, and its effectiveness; and the consequences. The report should conclude whether the use of force was lawful and, in any event, should identify any lessons learned from the incident.”

On June 4, McMurray told press that his department would stay the course if presented with another situation like the day before.

“If they try this again, we’ll be ready for them again,” he said. “We’re not going to put up with these organizers with the backpacks, the medical first aid kits, the weapons they bring to fight police officers, and to break and loot and trash cities like they’re doing all over this country.”

McMurray took a somewhat more conciliatory tone after his presentation two weeks later, telling the council that he was open to discussing ways to improve his department. But during the presentation, he stuck to the idea that medics among the protesters who had marked themselves with red tape were there to patch up violent demonstrators who could then rejoin a fight against police.

That also runs contrary to what the international guidelines say.

“Medical personnel, whether they are acting officially or as volunteers, should be provided with safe access to attend to any injured individuals,” the guidelines state.

As Huntsville continues to reckon with what happened on June 3 and make decisions about any procedural changes in light of those events, Hiznay said the city faces a question about less-lethal weaponry that many U.S. police departments are confronting.

Based on the evidence he has reviewed, security forces across the country are inclined to use last-resort methods as a first resort, he said. The core question is whether these weapons can be used in a way that complies with necessity and proportionality.

“And when you’re talking about what happened in the courthouse square there, the answer is becoming no — that they’re prone to abuse, and they’re causing debilitating permanent injury in situations where a non-violent crowd is trying to comply,” Hiznay said.

 

Micah Danney is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Birmingham building inspector arrested, charged with abusing office for personal gain

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Tuesday announced the arrest of a city of Birmingham building inspector charged in connection with soliciting and accepting a bribe in 2016, to approve a building inspection.

Thomas Edward Stoves surrendered to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office on Monday and was released on bond, according to a press release from Marshall’s office.

Stoves, 41, was working as a building inspector for the city’s Planning, Engineering and Permits office when in August 2016, he allegedly solicited and accepted $1,200 in exchange for approving a building inspection, Marshall’s office said in the release.

Stoves is charged with violating the state’s ethics laws by using his public position for personal gain, which is a class B felony and punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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Health

Alabama’s spike in daily COVID-19 deaths Tuesday result of process delays

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Tuesday recorded 48 new COVID-19 deaths in the state, bringing the total number of coronavirus deaths over the last two weeks to 335, the third-highest two-week total since the start of the pandemic.

In June, at least 296 Alabamians died from coronavirus, the Alabama Department of Public Health reported, and in July there were 605 COVID-19 deaths, the most recorded in any month since the pandemic began. This summer, Alabama’s death count from the disease skyrocketed after periods of relatively flat daily death counts.

But Tuesday’s jump in single day reported deaths was the result of a delay in the process of collecting and reviewing necessary medical records, laboratory data and other information, and not a reflection of an overall increase in deaths, said Dr. Karen Landers with the Alabama Department of Public Health, in a message to APR on Tuesday.

The daily number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the state’s seven-and 14-day averages of news cases, have been on the decline since late July, but daily testing numbers have been all over the map from day to day. The state’s seven-day average of new daily tests was at 8,611 on Tuesday, after five straight days in late July when the state was recording seven-day averages of new daily tests of more than 10,000.

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ADPH on Monday announced that software vendor problems had thrown off some of the department’s COVID-19 testing numbers, and that the problem had been fixed and some lab data was being inputted into the system.

Meanwhile, ADPH on July 31 said the state was experiencing a rash of problems surrounding COVID-19 testing that was resulting in an average of seven days to get results, which public health experts have said renders the results nearly worthless.

The department said the lengthier turnaround time for test results is due to supply chain problems with test reagents, more demand for coronavirus tests nationwide, “and in some cases, increased numbers of unnecessary tests.”

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ADPH spokesman Ryan Easterling, in a response to APR’s questions about the fluctuating daily test numbers, on Tuesday wrote in a message that many factors affect both the reporting and result times for COVID-19 tests, and that multiple entities are conducting coronavirus testing in Alabama, including commercial laboratories, clinical laboratories and ADPH’s one lab. Some doctor’s offices, urgent cares, hospital emergency rooms and Long Term Care facilities are also conducting rapid COVID-19 tests, he said.

“Some new laboratories or entities who have previously not been accustomed to reporting notifiable disease results are having to report, which requires their understanding the requirements and methods of electronic reporting,” Easterling said. “Ongoing supply chain issues, such as reagents and consumables necessary for testing, occur periodically and reduce turn around for testing.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide have remained high since the state hit a record 1,642 hospitalized coronavirus patients on July 30. On Tuesday, there were 1,506 hospitalized COVID-19 patients across Alabama, ADPH reported, and the state’s seven-day average of hospitalizations was at 1,553 which was just slightly below the record high of 1,590 on Aug. 2.

The percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive – a sign that helps determine the current extent of the spread of the disease – began to dip slightly at the start of August, but it remains well above the five percent positivity rate that public health experts say it needs to be to ensure enough testing is being done and cases aren’t going undetected.

Alabama’s 14-day average of percent positivity on Tuesday was 16 percent, down from 18 percent a week before.

Gov. Kay Ivey issued a statewide mask order on July 15, and it can take weeks before seeing whether such a requirement is having an impact on the spread of the virus, public health officials have said.

There’s concern, however, that as the state’s K-12 schools and universities continue to reopen in the coming days, outbreaks could pop up across the state, sparking another wave of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

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Jones hosts roundtable with minority business owners, entrepreneurs

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks during a live-streamed press briefing. (VIA SEN. DOUG JONES'S OFFICE)

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones on Tuesday hosted an online roundtable discussion with minority business owners, entrepreneurs and investors.

“In Alabama, small businesses employ half of all employees, and entrepreneurs account for 25 percent of all new business in the United States,” Jones said at the start of the discussion. “But we also know that in this world we’re living in today, minorities and minority-owned businesses have been affected disproportionately by the COVID crisis, hurt disproportionately from their counterparts.”

Jones, a member of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, said he sponsored a bill along with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, called the Jobs and Neighborhood Investment Act, which aims to invest $17.9 billion into minority and low-income communities hard-hit by COVID-19.

Jones said the bill would provide eligible community development financial institutions and Minority Depository Institutions with “capital, liquidity, and operational capacity that they need to expand the flow of credit into underserved minority and historically disadvantaged communities.”

“The goal is to help small businesses stay afloat, and expand operations during the economic downturn,” Jones said.

Tiffany Jordan, co-founder and chief development officer at Huntsville’s Acclinate Genetics, which aims to ensure minorities are represented in clinical trials, said during the roundtable that her company has access to capital, but asked “what about other small businesses?”

“Oftentimes we get on the phone and somebody says, ‘I know an investor.’ Well once Alabama brings you here, and they find you that first investor, what are we doing as a state to make sure that we have the resources, the lines, to keep these companies here?” Jordan said.

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Alabama needs to do a better job at ensuring start-ups have the resources needed to stay in the state, Jordan said.

Asked by APR whether the COVID-19 crisis has changed the landscape of how business is done, and whether there are opportunities for minority-owned businesses and startups in those changes, Jordan said the pandemic has allowed many the opportunity to work from home.

Jordan said her business partner and her often say that they now have access to people whom they would otherwise have to get on a plane to see in person, because they’re also working from home and have more flexibility.

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“So hopefully small business owners utilize this opportunity to really propel themselves forward, to make sure that they are setting these meetings with people that are hard to reach, make sure that you’re taking time to focus on some new time to really think about the solution that you have and who you’re wanting to offer that solution to,” Jordan said. “So I think COVID-19 has allowed us a very unique opportunity to get it going and to propel it faster forward.”

Michelle Parvinrouh, executive director at the Innovation PortAL in Mobile, which is renovating 30,000-square-feet in the city’s St. Louis Street corridor for a business incubator and co-working space, said the ultimate entrepreneur is “just the best problem-solver” and that COVID-19 pandemic has created “a whole new slew of problems that we have not had before and that we did not predict.”

“So that was something really kind of amazing, to see throughout Alabama were all these different startups and companies coming and rising up and developing solutions to problems that were not predicted, and maybe were a little bit outside of their typical range,” Parvinrouh said.

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Governor announces $7 million in COVID-19 aid to bolster state’s mental health response

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey delivers a video update from her office. (VIA GOVERNOR'S OFFICE)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced $7 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to two programs aimed at strengthening mental health services in Alabama. 

“COVID-19 has taken a toll on Alabamians in many ways, and that certainly includes their mental health. Like people around the globe, the people of our state are suffering, and I remain committed to providing the necessary support to get our state and her people back on our feet,” Ivey said in a statement. “These funds will go to support important mental health services that Alabamians are seeking in these difficult times. I am pleased to see the CARES Act funds continually being put to work for the people of Alabama.”

Of the $7 million in CARES Act funds for the Alabama Department of Mental Health, $1 million is to go toward ADMH’s Crisis and Recovery Services program for the development of a web-based, toll-free crisis hotline to help guide people, especially those impacted by COVID-19, to appropriate services, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. 

The remaining $6 million is for a community provider reimbursement program in which ADMH will reimburse nearly 300 provider agencies that provide services to people with mental illness, substance use disorders and developmental disabilities.

“We are deeply grateful for Governor Ivey’s support of community providers and Alabamians with mental illness, substance use disorder and intellectual/developmental disabilities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” said ADMH Commissioner Lynn Beshear in a statement. “Through the Governor’s leadership in establishing this grant program, access to behavioral health services will be enhanced, and organizations that care for some of our most vulnerable citizens will be reimbursed for unexpected expenses related to the virus.”

The $7 million is a portion of the overall $1.9 billion in federal CARES Act money appropriated to Alabama to help mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the memorandum of understanding between Alabama’s Department of Finance and ADMH, a monthly report is to be submitted to the Department of Finance by ADMH that details how the money is being spent.

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