Connect with us

News

Huntsville police advisory council feeling the pressure as testimonies pour in

Micah Danney

Published

on

Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray speaks during a press conference in June.

Hundreds of Huntsville residents have sent written comments to the group tasked with reviewing police actions against protesters in June, with a week left to submit through the online community input portal.

The 10-member Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council has received almost 650 form submissions and more than 200 emails since the portal opened on July 9. It will close on Aug. 7.

Some residents have been frustrated that the form does not allow for uploads of photos, videos or other media. Many have footage, photos of injuries, Powerpoints and other documentation they want to share. 

David Little, who is a member of the HPCAC, said it is considering how to accommodate digital media. There will be listening sessions for public comment but dates and locations have not been set. The group has discussed doing virtual meetings, but technology, logistics and cost may present obstacles, Little said.

All HPCAC members are volunteers and some have day jobs, said Little, a financial advisor. Some are retired and some work part-time. With hundreds of hours of body camera and drone footage to review, written testimonies to be read, public meetings to be held and research to be done, there is no projected timeline for the process and no deadline for the report.

It might take weeks or months, Little said, but he wants people to know the group takes its role seriously.

“We feel the pressure, believe me,” he said.

Public Service Announcement

An intermediary between police and community

Little was appointed to the group when the City Council established it in 2010. Its first chair, John Reitzell, also remains a member. Both were appointed to their current two-year terms by Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. The chief appoints three members, the mayor appoints two and the five city council members each appoint one.

The HPCAC was formed to improve communication and strengthen bonds between the police department and its community.

“The thing I usually tell people is that we bring a citizen’s perspective to policies and procedures of law enforcement,” Little said.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the city’s code, the group “shall be comprised of citizens who are concerned about police and community relations, and who are sensitive to community needs and perceptions” and who “represent the community at large.”

Former Councilman Richard Showers initially proposed it as a citizen review board that would review police actions and present findings, AL.com reported at the time. Showers was responding to community concerns that police were treating Black residents differently and that there was a lack of diversity on the force. Councilman Bill Kling proposed a different version that would give the department feedback on its policies and community relations but didn’t have a mandate to sit in judgment of individual officers, and a citizens advisory council was adopted.

Little was initially appointed by former Council President Mark Russell. The two were acquainted through Little’s involvement in the leadership training program Leadership Greater Huntsville.

Once the HPCAC was formed, its members spent several months visiting precincts and learning about every aspect of the Huntsville Police Department. They went on ride-alongs, met at the Huntsville Police Academy every couple of weeks and heard from members of each element within the department.

“We were just kind of drinking from the fire hose, learning as much as we could about the police department, about their policies, about how they operate,” Little said.

Since then, members have learned about police policies and procedures at the Huntsville Citizens Police Academy, at least until the pandemic began. Two new members were appointed in June and have not yet undergone that training.

The HPCAC used to hold four meetings each year. Barely any residents attended, Little said, so the meetings were cut to two per year.

“So that’s always been a real challenge, and I think maybe now all of a sudden everybody’s wanting to know who’s this advisory council, and maybe the community will be a little more engaged with us,” Little said. “That’s really what we want. It’d be great to have a full house wherever we meet.”

Concerns about independence

Chad Chavez did as police instructed on June 3 and went home after the NAACP rally permit expired. As such, he was not among the people who police fired at or hit with projectiles that night. He watched the chaos from the safety of his home, as the police chief has since stated was all anyone had to do to avoid what happened.

Yet Chavez, 36, a data analyst for a private healthcare provider, says that the actions police took in early June made him feel unsafe enough to take action. After watching things escalate on June 1, Chavez bought shatter-resistant goggles in anticipation of the protest two days later.

McMurray later cited protesters bringing protective equipment as evidence that they wanted a fight with police, but Chavez said he had no such desire. He was worried about losing an eye. At past demonstrations, he was used to seeing police chumming it up with marchers. This time was different. He saw officers “staring down” people who chanted or called for police to kneel. He told his goggleless fiance to get behind him if police started shooting at them. 

“I think that’s a pretty good example of what the chief has done to make free-speech events pretty scary,” he said.

Chavez sent an email to the City Council on July 9 saying that he was concerned about how HPCAC seats are filled, with half appointed by a mayor and police chief who have both been dismissive of public outrage over protesters’ injuries and right to assemble. He also alleged a lack of transparency in the HPCAC’s review process.

“They seem to exist solely to reshare HPD’s social media posts,” he wrote. “Even a direct email generates a generic response of ‘your message has been received’ with no additional follow-up.”

He received an email the next day from HPCAC member John Reitzell, who thanked him for submitting a community input form and suggested that he may be given additional time at a future public meeting to present video footage. Reitzell then urged him to learn more about the HPCAC.

“Also you need to do some real research on us and what we have ACTUALLY done, and accomplished,” Reitzell wrote. “We are certainly not do nothings, we hold some non public meetings but most of our Executive sessions are not chronicled for obvious reasons. We have had multiple public meetings per year in each city council district for the 10 in which we have existed.”

Reitzell continued that the HPCAC has made a significant impact on the racial diversification of the department, on reforming “policies that made no sense to us” and advocating for procedures it deemed necessary to hammer into recruits at the academy. 

The group has been consulted on issues large and small that the public wasn’t privy to, according to Little. Those include the implementation of body cameras and Tasers down to determining a fairer system for choosing what towing companies to call.

Chavez noted that when Little responds to comments on the HPCAC Facebook page, his profile picture is a blue line running horizontally across a black background, a common sign of support for police.

“In my mind the Blue Lives Matter thing has really come up in opposition to the Black Lives Matter thing, enough that someone who is claiming to be a representative of the entire citizenry is really sending a hostile message by making that their outward facing profile,” Chavez said.

Little maintains that a good relationship with the department is central to the HPCAC’s mission.

“A few people have said, ‘Oh, y’all are just a bunch of good ol’ boys, y’all are friends with the police.’ Well, you know, we wouldn’t be able to probably get a lot of stuff done and work with the department if we didn’t have a good relationship with them,” he said.

Expectations versus reality

Jonathan Rossow, one of the group’s newest members, said he understands residents’ fears about a too-cozy relationship.

“It’s a valid concern because by nature, the CAC has to have a working relationship with police if they’re going to be making recommendations,” he said.

Councilwoman Frances Akridge offered Rossow a vacant seat after he came to her with concerns about the police actions, including the posture they took toward protesters, he said. 

Like Reitzell, a retired Army colonel, Rossow settled in Huntsville after a military career. He moved to the city about two years ago from Virginia after retiring as a colonel in the Air Force after 25 years and four combat tours. 

Rossow said he retired from the Air Force but not from service to the country. He took an oath to defend the Constitution, a document he still reads, he said. He was dismayed by the destruction and looting that took place during many protests nationwide after George Floyd was killed, but said he is “very supportive” of the Black Lives Matter movement and thinks it necessary to move American society forward.

“I still believe that there are things and freedoms that are in the Constitution that members of our society, communities of our society — the African-American community — have yet to fully realize,” he said.

His role on the HPCAC, however, requires the impartiality and objectivity he exercised throughout his career, he said. That often required him to present uncomfortable things to people he had relationships with. If the relationship is good enough, it should weather those things, he said. 

He’ll put his career experience to use throughout the review process, he said.

“I come at it from a military perspective, but more so as a military leader that’s been in combat and has been in the position of taking in information and making decisions,” Rossow said.

Little and Rossow both said they expect the review to result in recommendations for changes. Before the city council passed the resolution “to kind of give us teeth, so to speak,” HPCAC members met with the chief and asked pointed questions which McMurray answered, Little said.

Police want to do better and lessons will be learned from what happened in June, he said, but he wants the public to understand his council’s role. It doesn’t include employment changes, calling for the chief to be fired or the mayor to resign, he said — its task is to look at what police did, what if anything they can do differently and make recommendations about policy and procedure.

For comparison, the HPCAC has so far played a strictly advisory role in the case of HPD Officer William Darby, who is currently standing trial for murder for killing a suicidal man in April 2018. 

AL.com reported that Darby testified that he pushed past two officers already on the scene, one of whom was talking to the man to de-escalate the situation, and shot the man in the face because the officer speaking to him was “failing to control the situation” and not “protecting herself.”

The man, Jeffrey Parker, 49, was sitting on a couch holding a pistol to his head, which turned out to be a flare gun that was modified to look real and fire buckshot. Darby claimed the man didn’t drop the gun after three commands to do so, and said he saw it move when Parker shrugged. The other officer, Genisha Pegues, testified against Darby, saying that Parker assured her he didn’t want to hurt her and she never felt threatened by him.

Darby was indicted four months after the shooting. That was three months after McMurray and members of the department’s command staff conducted an internal review and determined that Darby had acted within department policy, clearing him entirely. A few members of the HPCAC were invited to observe that review but were not able to vote on its outcome. 

“In that step, we’re not there to be asking questions or casting blame or rendering a verdict,” Little said.

After such cases, the HPCAC will get briefed on any policy adjustments police decide to make and members may ask questions, Little said, adding that he couldn’t comment further on the Darby case because it is ongoing.

McMurray and Mayor Tommy Battle characterized the violence against Parker as unfortunate but warranted, as they have with the force used against protesters. Officers in both incidents did what they were trained to do.

According to city code, the HPCAC’s role is to advise on issues that include “Actions, philosophies, behaviors and practices that contribute to community tensions, grievances, and complaints,” but it is unclear how deep the group is prepared or equipped to go in its present mandate.

In general, Little said he thinks the department is ahead of the curve on many of the reform measures he hears politicians calling for in other parts of the country. Its academy requires 19 weeks of training compared to 13 weeks at the state academy. It trains officers in de-escalation, mental health and implicit bias.

Little said that the report could result in recommendations like better loudspeakers if protesters couldn’t hear commands to disperse or changes to policies regarding use of force during a multi-agency response.

“So maybe that’s something we work on, is: Ok, well, if something happens, how do we coordinate use of force decisions, because it’s the sheriff’s department that has rubber bullets, not the Huntsville Police Department,” he said.

Asked if the HPCAC can get information from the other agencies involved on June 3, Little said that the council has no oversight or official connection to them. He knows Sheriff Mark Turner from a leadership class they once took together, though, and could ask questions if the council has any.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t answer them,” Little said. “But again, I don’t know if that would fall into our purview of the process when we’re a City-of-Huntsville-appointed board.”

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

Advertisement

Education

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

Published

on

(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Public Service Announcement
Continue Reading

Congress

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne announces new chief of staff

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, on Friday announced that Seth Morrow will serve as his chief of staff.

“As we enter the last half of 2020, my office remains busy assisting constituents and advancing our legislative priorities. I know Seth shares my focus on finishing out my term in Congress strong, and he is well prepared to move into the Chief of Staff role,” Byrne said in a statement. “My staff and I will continue working hard every day to fight for the people of Southwest Alabama and advance our conservative agenda.”

Morrow is a native of Guntersville and has worked for Byrne since June 2014, serving as deputy chief of staff and communications director. 

“I am grateful for this opportunity, and I’m committed to ensuring our office maintains our first class service to the people of Southwest Alabama. Congressman Byrne has always had the hardest working team on Capitol Hill, and I know we will keep that tradition going,” Morrow said in a statement.

Morrow replaces Chad Carlough, who has held the position of Byrne’s chief of staff since March 2017. 

“Chad has very ably led our Congressional team over the last few years, and I join the people of Southwest Alabama in thanking him for his dedicated service to our state and our country,” Byrne said. 

Public Service Announcement
Continue Reading

Crime

Alabama Department of Corrections investigating inmate death

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

Eddie Burkhalter

Published

on

(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of an inmate at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

“While Adams’ exact cause of death is pending the results of a full autopsy, at the time of his passing inmate Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, was not under quarantine following direct exposure to an inmate or staff member who previously had tested positive, and was not in medical isolation as a result of a positive COVID-19 test,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in the message.

Because Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, he had not been tested, Rose said.

An ADOC worker who contacted APR Friday morning about the death, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions from ADOC administrators, said it’s suspected that Adams may have overdosed after being given a cigarette laced with a drug.

Adams is at least the sixteenth state inmate to die this year from either homicide, suspected drug overdose or suicide. Additionally, fifteen inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

Public Service Announcement
Continue Reading

News

Alabama GOP chair: “We expect our elected officials to follow the law” after Dismukes arrest

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Alabama GOP chair Terry Lathan said on Twitter.

Brandon Moseley

Published

on

State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been arrested on the charge of felony theft.

Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said Thursday that Alabamians expect their leaders to follow the law. Her comments came in response to news that an arrest warrant had been issued for State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, on the charge of felony theft.

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Lathan said on Twitter. “No one is immune to these standards. It is very disappointing to hear of these allegations. This is now a legal matter and it must run its course.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Friday in a statement that Dismukes will get his day in court.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I have faith in the criminal justice process and trust that he will receive a full and fair hearing,” McCutcheon said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of similar crimes in the past, and we cannot tolerate such behavior whether the lawmaker involved has a D or an R beside their name.”

Dismukes has been charged by his former employer, a custom flooring company, of felony theft charges. Dismukes left that employer and started his own custom flooring company.

Dismukes, who is serving in his first term and is one of the youngest members of the Alabama Legislature, has been heavily criticized for his participation in a birthday party for Confederate Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma. Forrest was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Public Service Announcement

The party in Selma occurred the same week that Congressman John Lewis’s funeral events were happening in Selma. Dismukes resigned his position at Valley Baptist Church when the Southern Baptists threatened to disassociate the Prattville Church if they retained Dismukes. He has defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature, but if convicted of a felony, he would be automatically removed from office.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives over his being the chaplain of the Prattville Sons of Confederate Veterans and his Facebook post lauding Forrest. The investigation into the theft predates the controversies surrounding Dismukes’s glorification of the Confederacy and Forrest.

Republican State Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who also represents Prattville, has called on Dismukes to resign.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Since first being elected in 1996, I’ve had a policy of not publicly criticizing other elected officials, but at this time I am making an exception since Rep. Dismukes is MY state representative. He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people of District 88,” Chambliss said. “The post is bad enough, the timing is even worse, but the real problem is that an elected official in 2020 would attend a celebration of the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings. He has had 24 hours to understand why people are so upset, but his interview on WSFA a few moments ago confirms that he is lacking in understanding and judgment — he should resign immediately.”

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has repeatedly called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives.

The Alabama Democratic Party recently said in a statement, “Will Dismukes is morally unfit for office. Republicans and Democrats statewide seem to agree. Unfortunately, despite the mounting calls for his immediate resignation, Will intends to stay in office and seek re-election without penalty from the Republican Party.”

“While Alabama Republicans hope this will be a distant memory when Dismukes runs for re-election in 2022, we are not going to let him off the hook,” the ADP wrote. “The Alabama Democratic Party is going to leverage every tool we have to send Will packing when he comes up for re-election in two years.”

“In our darkest hours in life there is still light in Christ!” Dismukes wrote on social media Wednesday. “As the storm continues to blow with heavy force, there is yet a peace that this too shall pass. I guess sometimes we find out if we have built our house on sand or the solid rock of Christ. Psalm 23.”

When Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, was indicted on 21 charges of felony ethics violations, he did not resign and actually remained speaker until a jury of his peers in Lee County convicted him on 12 counts.

Continue Reading