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Opinion | Accountability lacking in law enforcement response to Huntsville protests

A report on the June 2020 protest police response revealed troubling issues within HPD, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and ALEA.

Police in Huntsville respond to protesters in June 2020. (VIA DAVID CAPO)

Which Madison County Sheriff’s deputies shot rubber bullets that injured protesters during a June 2020 peaceful protest? 

That’s a secret. 

Which deputies fired tear gas and aimed sniper rifles from rooftops at the peaceful protesters? 

Also a secret. 

What was state troopers’ role in the ugly scene that took place near the courthouse in downtown Huntsville that night — a scene that made national headlines and embarrassed one of Alabama’s most progressive cities? 

Another secret. 

The Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council on Thursday evening released its long-awaited report on the June 3rd protest and police overreaction. The lengthy report wasn’t made available to the public until late Thursday night, but the HPCAC’s attorneys — Elizabeth Huntley and Jack Sharman — provided the Huntsville City Council with a lengthy summary of its findings. 

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APR will dig through the full 248-page report in the coming days, but for now, there were a few key takeaways from the information provided by Huntley and Sharman. 

Mainly, they were this: The policing of that protest was a mess and there is almost no accountability for Alabama law enforcement officers. 

The three primary agencies that had officers on the ground that night — HPD, Madison County Sheriff’s Office and ALEA — apparently never talked to one another, and no rules were established for how the event or any trouble might be handled. That led to deputies firing rubber bullets at protesters — something HPD allegedly doesn’t allow — on city streets. (A now-former HPD officer was also caught on his body cam telling other officers that he had fired five rubber bullets that night. So, there’s also some communication issues within HPD as well.)

After interviewing HPD Chief Mark McMurray, the HPCAC said it found there was little coordination between the agencies, and McMurray told them that he never relayed any rules or boundaries to the other agencies. 

Of course, none of that explains why so many officers seemed to lose their minds that night, either. 

In addition to the HPD officer who fired rubber bullets at the crowd, another also was caught on camera firing beanbags at protesters’ faces — another violation of department policy. 

That was in addition to tear gas being deployed unnecessarily and MCSO deputies on buildings pointing sniper rifles at protesters. 

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To date, however, not a single officer from any agency has been disciplined, Huntley told the council. 

And if anything, the leaders of those law enforcement agencies have gone to great lengths to cover up what their officers did. 

Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner refused requests from the HPCAC to interview his deputies, provide records or turn over body cam footage. The same occurred with Hal Taylor at ALEA. And McMurray instructed his officers not to answer HPCAC questions, too. 

Turner and Taylor denied the HPCAC requests for public information simply because they didn’t want to provide it. 

And that should infuriate every citizen of this state. 

Not just because two leaders of law enforcement agencies ignored the law and hid public information, but also because they sought to hide from public view the actions of officers interacting with citizens on public property. 

In what world is that OK? 

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This expectation of secrecy that some law enforcement officials apparently hold is troubling, and it’s one of the root causes of public distrust of police. While there are certainly instances in which law enforcement should be able to keep certain things private — at least for a short period of time — there is absolutely no excuse for a sheriff attempting to hide the record of how his deputies interacted with the citizens they’re sworn to serve. 

And if officers did wrong, the public should have a basic expectation that those officers — particularly if they did something as egregious as purposefully fire a harmful projectile at a person’s head — will be punished or fired. 

That these incidents apparently haven’t been addressed nearly a year later, and leadership is instead seemingly attempting to sweep it all under the rug, is a huge problem. And I can’t see a pathway to better police-citizen respect in Huntsville and Madison County until that problem gets solved. 

Written By

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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