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Huntsville activists outline agenda for police reform

Two lists of potential reforms sit ready to be considered.

Micah Danney

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(CONTRIBUTED)

While the Huntsville City Council and local activists await a report by the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council about police actions in June, two lists of potential reforms sit ready to be considered.

The lists were created by the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform, the activist group established by Huntsville resident Angela Curry. The first is 10 specific requests that Curry compiled based on conversations with dozens of residents. The youngest was 16 and the oldest was 83, she said. She asked each person what they would change to make law enforcement better, and some common themes emerged.

The result was 10 of the simplest things the community could ask of its leaders and police, “that you would look at this list and say, hey, we don’t have these things already?” Curry said.

Activists have described city leaders as reluctant to engage with them in meaningful ways. Officials publicly pronounce a desire to improve police procedures and community-police relations but don’t address what might be wrong with current procedures, and CCCJR members say that only Councilmember Frances Akridge has been willing to meet with them.

Mayor Tommy Battle did not respond to a request for comment, but he mentioned the issue at a City Council meeting on Nov. 5, saying that his administration would meet with residents who have been in touch but only once the HPCAC completes its review. He wants the review to be conducted independently, he said. 

“I have some strong feelings on that. I don’t want influence from council and I don’t want influence from the administration,” Battle said.

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At the same meeting, multiple members of CCCJR used their allotted three minutes during public comments to describe specific reform measures that are not connected to police actions in June. Many expressed frustration at what they see as the council’s resistance to any acknowledgment that there are problems with Huntsville police policies, training or officers’ behavior.

CCCJR’s list is as follows, with explanations by Curry, lightly edited for clarity:

  • All standard operating procedures (SOPs) and use of force policies will be made available to the public (online). Citizens and officers should be equally informed on these policies, which involve citizen and police contact. 

Curry: We constantly hear, “If the citizen would have just followed the law or complied then they would have been ok and the situation wouldn’t have escalated.” So what are the laws and the policies? What are police procedures when someone has an encounter? If an officer is the only one on the scene who knows what should happen, why is there this expectation that a citizen is able to respond “accordingly” to policy? I talked to two young Black males who wanted to know why, when they get pulled over, they are always asked to get out of the car no matter what they were pulled over for. They wanted to know if that is policy. Others wanted to know if they have to give their names when asked, and if the officer is supposed to identify themselves. The officer can say whatever they want, and because we do not have the policy, we do not know how the interaction is supposed to go.

  • Annual training on agency SOP and use of force policies for officers, as part of their required annual Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (APOSTC) continuing education, will be required, with completion certificates publicly archived. 

Curry: We assume they complete the training and pass their assessments but we don’t know that that’s the case. It’s just bringing more visibility to public employees. If you go to a restaurant, their health code score is publicly posted so you know if they’re following the guidelines set by the Health Department. So if officers are trained in use of force and a certain officer has 50 complaints related to use of force, well here’s the public acknowledgement that they were trained, so then what is causing these use of force complaints?

  • Documented explanation of the hiring process for officers, with specific information provided about screening processes. Example: Mental health screening and background screening (even via social media) to determine any racial bias/discriminatory tendencies of a cadet.
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Curry: How do we know they’re not hiring racist cops? Are they doing mental health screenings to see if they’re suffering from PTSD? Are they checking their social media accounts to see if they’re part of an alt-right group? Or do they just take their word for it? My mindset was, you know, we often accuse officers of all these horrible things without having established if there is evidence to the contrary. This should give some reassurance to the community that the department didn’t just hire Billy Joe Bob and his cousin because they needed a job – that they actually screened these individuals with the public in mind, for their ability to interact with the public professionally. This can establish more trust.

  • Crime-mapping data from each law enforcement agency in Madison County will be provided to the public via each agency’s webpage.

Curry: If we can demonstrate a low crime rate, it would help to boost the economy because tourists could see which areas are the safest and feel good about staying in our city. There’s a stigma that north Huntsville is just crime-infested. Well, this crime-mapping data would prove or disprove that, or open a conversation about whether this area is being over-policed, causing much more crime to be recorded than in other areas of the city. These data points could be explored if they were publicly available, but they’re not.

  • Provide officer complaint information from each agency in Madison County on their respective agency webpage, to include the nature of each complaint and disposition. This includes instructions for how a citizen can file a complaint, what is required and where to go to submit complaints.

Curry: I’ve listened to people say that they didn’t know where to go, the officer wouldn’t tell them, they’d have to go to Internal Affairs, you have to tell the person at the desk why you’re there, they ask you to give an account of your whole complaint, then they have you go to another room and they ask you the same question, they finally give you some paperwork and put you in what looks like an interrogation room, and they repeatedly come in and ask if you’re done yet. Then they give the complaint to the appropriate shift officer who just says that the officer in question followed policy. Well, who’s going to say that their officer didn’t follow policy? There should be an independent review. And we’re in the space and rocket city in 2020 — you should be able to file a complaint online. If I’ve had a bad encounter with an officer and I have to go explain it to a higher-ranking officer who has a sense of loyalty to their officer brother or sister, I don’t know how helpful they’re going to be in helping me file a complaint versus trying to discourage me from doing it. If you look at the department’s annual reports, it looks like we hardly get any complaints.

  • Provide the public with details from each agency in Madison County as to their procedures for handling officers who are discovered to have exhibited racial bias or discriminatory tendencies.

Curry: People experience this sense of entitlement or power-tripping on the part of officers, but it only appears around people of color or people they think of as lower-class. They behave very arrogantly or are very condescending, people will say. One guy heard a cop say hello and call him sir, and the guy looked around because he thought the officer was talking to somebody else. He was 32 years old and it was the first time an officer had talked to him as a peer, as an equal. Others say they’ll see cop cars and know they’ll be pulled over without cause, and then they are. Things of that nature. 

  • Recommend a third party panel consisting of members of the community to review agency SOPs for evidence of bias and over-policing. Report those findings to the public.

Curry: The HPCAC is supposed to review policy and make recommendations, and they say that they’ve done that in their 10 years in existence, but they don’t report it publicly. So that part is specific to them because that is what they’re supposed to do. We didn’t know if they look into racial bias issues, so we wanted to make sure that if this is not something they’re doing, can they add it to their list. And then can you make it public? Why is it secret?

  • Recommend a diverse Citizen Complaint Review Board composed of members of the African American, Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian communities to review citizen complaints, and allow this panel to make SOP-rooted disciplinary recommendations to the mayor, city council and agency executives.

Curry: This group would look at any and all civilian complaints that come in. Internal Affairs would also get them, but this group would examine them from a citizens’ perspective. The HPCAC seems to be a policy review board that examines something if they’re asked to. This new board would exist specifically for complaints. Citizens could file complaints directly to the board through their website, which would also go to Internal Affairs but wouldn’t be required to go through them. It creates additional oversight.

  • Ensure a 100 percent transparent process for releasing law enforcement body camera footage to the public.

Curry: We don’t know what the process is, but from what I remember from HPD presentations given this summer, if you are a loved one or you were in the video, you make a request to see the body cam footage. HPD responds to your request and then arrangements are made for you to see it. But we know with Crystal Ragland, it took them at least six months and they limited the number of people who could go see the video footage. Their family has six immediate family members, but police told them that only three members could view it. When Crystal’s mom asked them how she was supposed to decide which members would go with her, they stopped talking to her. 

  • Respond to the Tennessee Valley Progressive Alliance’s communication regarding the decriminalization of marijuana. 

Curry: Everybody misreads this one. The TVPA had done research on this issue to present to legislators and law enforcement. The group reached out to Huntsville officials but never got a response [beyond an acknowledgment that their letter was received]. The only thing we’re asking is that they respond to this group. The City Council members we’ve heard from take it as, “You want to decriminalize marijuana and that’s a state law.” We would like to do that eventually, but if a group comes to them and makes a request, they should at least give them the respect of replying. If they won’t even respond to an inquiry about it, they’re not ready to address it. It foreshadows the fact that we are a group making a request — we’ve done research, we didn’t just throw out some willy-nilly list — and then you don’t want to meet with us either. It establishes a pattern.

In October, Curry and CCCJR organizers consulted Ademali Sengal, a senior organizer with the Grassroots Law Project, a national group that advocates for policing and justice reform. Sengal had initially reached out to City Councilmember Frances Akridge to discuss how Huntsville was allocating its police budget. Akridge referred him to CCCJR and connected him with Curry.

Sengal asked what ultimate goals they wanted to see realized. Their responses formed the second list of six main components of a reform package, as follows:

  1. Behavioral health (rather than police) deal with non-police calls. Decriminalize mental health and homelessness.
  2. Broad access to law enforcement agency public information on the internet.
  3. Accountability for bad policing, to include prosecution, jail time and the loss of eligibility to work as a police officer anywhere (ensured by decertification and entrance into a centralized database).
  4. An HPCAC with teeth, and with a membership that is representative of the entire community.
  5. A regional public safety task force which provides oversight of law enforcement agencies in northern Alabama.
  6. A state law that governs all body camera footage for all law enforcement agencies in the state. 

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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Health

Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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Corruption

Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence

The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations in September. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two. 

Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on five of those counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another count.

Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”   

Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 

“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.

Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his entrance should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months. 

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.

“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law.  Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”

Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, more than four years after his conviction. On Nov. 5 he was taken into custody by the Department of Corrections.

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News

Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, has “mild symptoms”

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.

Eddie Burkhalter

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iron Bowl and has mild symptoms, according to a statement from the university on Wednesday. 

“This morning we received notification that Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson and Jeff Allan, associate athletic director, in the statement. “He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a false positive. He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.” 

Saban had previously tested positive before Alabama’s game against Georgia but was asymptomatic and subsequently tested negative three times, a sign that the positive test could have been a false positive. He returned to coach that game. 

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for quarantining after testing positive and with symptoms. Neither Saban nor the university had spoken about that possibility as of Wednesday morning.

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National

Civil rights leader Bruce Boynton dies at 83

The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

Brandon Moseley

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Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton

Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton died from cancer in a Montgomery hospital on Monday. He was 83. The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

“We’ve lost a giant of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama. “Son of Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bruce Boynton was a Selma native whose refusal to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant led to the landmark SCOTUS decision in Boynton v. Virginia overturning racial segregation in public transportation, sparking the Freedom Rides and end of Jim Crow. Let us be inspired by his commitment to keep striving and working toward a more perfect union.”

Boynton attended Howard University Law School in Washington D.C. He was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, in his senior year of law school for refusing to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant. That arrest and conviction would be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Boynton and civil rights advocates prevailed in the landmark case 1060 Boynton vs. Virginia.

Boynton’s case was handled by famed civil rights era attorney Thurgood Marshal, who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1960 7-to-2 decision ruled that federal prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also applied to bus stations and other interstate travel facilities.

The decision inspired the “Freedom Rides” movement. Some Freedom Riders were attacked when they came to Alabama.

While Boynton received a high score on the Alabama Bar exam, the Alabama Bar prevented him from working in the state for years due to that 1958 trespassing conviction. Undeterred, Boynton worked in Tennessee during the years, bringing school desegregation lawsuits.

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Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said on social media: “NAACP LDF represented Bruce Boynton, who was an unplanned Freedom Rider (he simply wanted to buy a sandwich in a Va bus station stop & when denied was willing to sue & his case went to the SCOTUS) and later Bruce’s mother Amelia Boynton (in Selma after Bloody Sunday).”

His mother, Amelia Boynton, was an early organizer of the voting rights movement. During the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965, she was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She later co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. His father S.W. Boynton was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bruce Boynton worked for several years at a Washington D.C. law firm but spent most of his long, illustrious legal career in Selma, Alabama, with a focus on civil rights cases. He was the first Black special prosecutor in Alabama history and at one point he represented Stokely Carmichael.

This year has seen the passing of a number of prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Troy native Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

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