A civil rights group and two state lawmakers joined the growing chorus of voices calling for Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray to resign.
The Rosa Parks Day Committee was joined by Democratic state lawmakers Rep. Anthony Daniels, the House minority leader, and Rep. Laura Hall at a Thursday press conference, at which they called for McMurray to either resign his position or be fired by Mayor Tommy Battle. Later on Thursday, McMurray took more criticism from the public during a Huntsville City Council meeting.
The public outcry over McMurray began last summer following an ugly series of events in which his police officers fired tear gas at peaceful protesters. But a boiling point was reached last week, after the conviction of HPD officer William Darby for murder. Following that verdict, McMurray issued a statement in support of Darby.
“It’s time for the city council and mayor to take swift action and change the leadership,” Daniels said during the event. He said he is now convinced that McMurray cannot adequately lead the department and that his continued employment as chief is putting officers in danger.
“I’ve heard from people all over the community asking why someone isn’t speaking out about this,” Daniels said. “I don’t think the leadership in the department can take us in a positive direction. It’s come to a point where it has caused an adversarial relationship between officers and the public they serve. We need to think about the safety of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day, and we need to think about the safety of the people of this city.”
Members of the Rosa Parks Day Committee held a private meeting with Battle prior to Thursday’s press conference. Following that meeting, Battle issued an amended statement through the group in an apparent attempt to soften his comments immediately following Darby’s conviction.
Battle’s new statement read: “I respect the decision of the jury. I respect officer Darby’s right to appeal.”
David Person, a spokesman for the Rosa Parks Day Committee, said Battle’s amended statement came after the group asked the mayor “to recant his enthusiastic support for the convicted murderer.”
In that previous statement, provided just moments after Darby was convicted, Battle said: “While I respect the jury’s opinion, I disagree with the verdict. We recognize this was a hard case with a lot of technical information to process. Officer Darby followed the appropriate safety protocols in his response on the scene. He was doing what he was trained to do in the line of duty. Fortunately, Officer Darby has the same appeal rights as any other citizen and is entitled to exercise those rights.”
Battle has also continued to publicly defend McMurray, who has made a number of poor decisions over the last few months. Many of those decisions were detailed in a lengthy report put together by an advisory committee formed to investigate the police actions taken last summer during the George Floyd protests.
HPD was one of 100 American cities — and the only one in Alabama — to use tear gas on its citizens. And many activists and citizens contend that it was the only police force to use tear gas without physical or criminal provocation.
In the wake of that incident, McMurray’s actions came under increased scrutiny, and the chief didn’t help himself with strange Powerpoint presentations or by continuing to push debunked conspiracy theories about “outside agitators.”
McMurray’s insistence on publicly defending Darby further enraged activists and many citizens and business owners. As Darby’s trial progressed, and more evidence made its way into the public realm, that rage grew.
That evidence showed that Darby inserted himself into a scene that was well controlled by a senior officer. Jeff Parker had called 911 because he was having suicidal thoughts, and when officers arrived they found him seated on his couch with a gun to his head.
The first responding officer, Ganesha Pegues, was attempting to calm Parker when Darby burst onto the scene. After several minutes of conversation between Pegues and Parker — during which Pegues testified that she never felt as if she was in danger — Darby was inside the house less than 10 seconds before shooting Parker in the face for no reason. Both Pegues and Darby said Parker never moved his gun from his own head.
Still, that didn’t stop McMurray from backing Darby or from punishing Pegues. And following the verdict last Friday, McMurray issued his own statement: “We are in the first stages of shock. While we thank the jury for their service in this difficult case, I do not believe Officer Darby is a murderer. Officers are forced to make split-second decisions every day, and Officer Darby believed his life and the lives of other officers were in danger. Any situation that involves a loss of life is tragic. Our hearts go out to everyone involved.”
“Our position is clear: Chief McMurray must step down,” Person said following the event.