Why Alabama state officials might not want to appoint local police chiefs

Gun Rights

I can’t believe that the Alabama Legislature cares about public safety in our cities.

No, crime is not worse than it’s ever been. It’s far off its 1980 peak. And a 2020-21 spike in violent crime, caused by the COVID pandemic, appears to be dropping.

That doesn’t mean everything is fine. Birmingham reported a 15% increase in homicides year-to-year through July 1. Montgomery experienced an increase in violence in June.

And individual legislators are trying to address that.

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But as a whole, I don’t expect Alabama lawmakers to protect us from gunfire. Not when most of them work to overturn every barrier to firearm possession.

That’s why I’m skeptical about their sudden interest in the operation of local police departments.

SB 3, prefiled for the 2025 legislative session by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, would give the governor or attorney general the power to impose a police chief “to superintend any municipal police department.”

The bill makes this pretty easy. To put in their own candidate, Alabama’s chief executive and its chief law enforcement officer would need to talk to each other and look over crime statistics. They would also have to speak with a local district attorney, a local sheriff and local crime victims.

The governor and attorney general would also need to make a “determination” that the police force is 30% smaller than its average size over the previous 10 years.

Seems like a high hurdle, until you look at the staffing situation in some police departments. As al.com reported in May, Birmingham had about 296 positions (of 720 budgeted) vacant. The Montgomery Advertiser has noted other police departments are struggling to staff up. Some blame low morale. Others note there are better paying and less dangerous jobs available.

In any event, the bill would make it easy for the governor or attorney general to appoint chiefs, whether the local community approved or not. Strictly speaking, they could impose their own chief even if crime rates showed improvement: the legislation only requires our leaders to look at numbers, not determine what they mean.

The parachute chief would stay as long as the state deemed it necessary. He or she would work without answering to a mayor or city council. But local officials would still have to maintain funding for a department that didn’t have to answer to them.

And who determines whether funding is adequate? The attorney general and governor, of course.

There’s nothing in the state constitution or state law stopping the Legislature from doing this. Lawmakers have broad powers over Alabama’s cities.

When Birmingham established a minimum wage in 2016, the state Legislature quickly moved to block a decision made by local elected officials. And they prevailed.

If Goat Hill wants to let the governor and attorney general take over your local police department, they will.

But I wonder if legislators have thought this through.

It’s obvious what they think this legislation would accomplish. An attorney general or governor would sweep into a city; berate local officials; introduce their preferred chief and chant tough-on-crime mantras for the 5 p.m. news.

They would have a close ally in the police department. They would have the final say in the police budgets. And they could lord it over the mayor and the city council.

Then it’s back into a black SUV for a drive home, assuming that their responsibilities ended with puffing out their chests.

In fact, the governor and the attorney general will own that crime rate.

Because now they’re responsible for staffing the police department. Now they’re the ones who have to address lawbreaking in that city.

If crime goes up, the mayor and the city council can blame Montgomery’s meddling for the problem. After all, they took on the responsibility for it.

And then our state leaders — assuming they’re working in good faith — would have to confront systemic issues.

You can praise the work of law enforcement all you want. But if safer and better-paying alternatives are available, hiring officers will be hard. (The Alabama Department of Corrections could provide some advice on that.)

If they’re serious about addressing gun violence, then they have to confront their decades-long toadying to the National Rifle Association. Which, in our Republican-dominated government, would be Russian roulette.

The governor and attorney general could bluster and blame local officials for these problems until Fox News comes calling. But the fact is, crime is now their problem. And an attack line in a primary.

And suddenly, a state government that’s never been serious about city safety would have to confront many problems of their own making.

Do they want that?

I’m skeptical. It’s one thing to make a gesture about caring. It’s far more difficult to do the work that proves it.

And for most lawmakers, it’s easier to treat Alabama’s cities as targets instead of communities worthy of serious attention.

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