BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama town accused of padding its municipal budget with traffic ticket revenues by having police prey on poor people is being sued by multiple people, and a county judge dismissed dozens of citations saying the credibility of its police force is “garbage.”
A former judge who reviewed police practices in the Jefferson County city of Brookside following reports on its ticketing practices determined that police in the community of 1,253 people bullied the needy and those who appeared weak.
“In my view they were picking on people – it’s not true in every case – on people who were not going to fight back or appeared to not have the means to fight back like those who are in a better position in society,” former Jefferson County Circuit Judge Kenneth Simon told AL.com.
The town hired Simon last month after AL.com reported that Brookside police heaped tickets on drivers, confiscated guns and cars without going through formal processes and relied on fines and forfeitures for almost half its revenue in 2020. The stories detailed mistreatment by drivers, including some who believed they were targeted because they were Black.
Simon said his review seemed to show so far that Black and white people were ticketed by Brookside in similar numbers, although the town is about 71% white.
“There’s not a lot of difference between Black and white people stopped and mistreated,” Simon said. “The more common element seems to be people who appear to be powerless. They seemed to prey on people who looked like they might be poor.”
Lawyers for eight people who say they were wronged by Brookside police have filed suit arguing the town, the towing company it used to seize vehicles, and 23 current and former police officers conspired to take money and property from drivers.
The 46-page complaint, which was updated recently, claims each of the officers, working under former police chief Mike Jones, knew they were violating constitutional rights but did so to create more revenue for the town.
Brookside, just north of Birmingham, already faces at least 10 lawsuits about its policing practices.
Mayor Mike Bryan denied that there was any conspiracy.
The city hired a new police chief following Jones’ departure, and at least seven other officers resigned or were fired. It has gotten rid of military-style vehicles, adopted new police uniforms and updated its vehicles to make the city force appear less like a paramilitary outfit.
Rebuilding its reputation could take time, however. Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Shanta Owens said the department’s credibility was “garbage” as she dismissed tickets filed against drivers who received citations before the city’s reforms began. In all, 40 cases were dismissed against 11 people.
Defense attorneys called Owens’ ruling “courageous” and said it cleared the way for suits to move forward alleging the city violated civil rights.
“You need a successful outcome in a criminal case in order for a civil case to be viable. What Judge Owens did is open the floodgates for false arrest cases to go forward,” said lawyer Terrell McCants.