Inside the SPD
Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2006
The Selma Times-Journal
Editor’s Note: This feature includes face-to-face interviews with officers who were asked to speak frankly. It was agreed prior to the interviews the information provided could be used to give our readers an up-close look into the department of public safety. There were 16 officers interviewed, with experience ranging from rookie to veteran, male and female, and from all the various units. It was agreed before the confidential interviews that officers would be speaking on the basis of anonymity.
An in-depth look at the embattled Selma Police Department reveals varying opinions regarding its leadership, a need for better communications, more equipment and the effects politics has on policing, which advocates and detractors say should have no place in protecting and serving.
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The City of Selma budgeted $4,358,773.76 for the SPD during the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The amended budget is slightly higher at $4,469,620.81. It includes $2,867,186.35 for salaries for officers and support personnel. Department heads have submitted requests to Mayor James Perkins Jr., who has delivered a draft of next year’s budget to members of the City Council for review.
The City Council’s Public Safety Committee recently came under fire because officers said the group wrongfully criticized them.
Cecil Williamson, who serves on the committee, has called for Selma Police Chief Jimmy Martin to resign. In return, Perkins said he wanted a change in committee assignments for the SPD critics.
Chief Martin said no
critics have asked to meet with him to discuss their concerns. That’s a familiar theme around the department. Some veteran officers say Chief Martin doesn’t care what they think.
Cecil C. Jackson Jr. Public Safety Building
The home to the department for nearly 30 years, the structure has three floors and an elevator – currently out of order – that is being modernized. With leaks in the roof and a mold growing from moisture, the detective unit and the commander’s unit relocated to temporary offices across from the building’s parking lot. Officers complained about the working conditions, primarily the mold throughout the stairwells and
several offices that can “make you sick.”
Perkins told the City Council during its last regular meeting the mold “is being looked into.” Debra Love, an environmental scientist under contract with the city, is conducting a study of the mold. She had been working in New Orleans, studying the molds created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Perkins says Love will soon submit her findings in a report, and the city will know how to proceed with repairs to the public safety building, which sustained damage from Hurricane Ivan.
Mortar holding the wall tile hall is causing tiles to fall. Most of the third floor is cordoned off and in need of sprucing up. During the last City Council meeting, Martin took exception to Councilmembers
Reid Cain and Williamson, whom he observed “poking around on the third floor.” Martin was outraged. He and undercover officers escorted them to the stairwell.
The councilmembers were confronted about the incident during that evening’s City Council meeting. Both councilmembers serve on the
public safety committee. They said they were surveying the damage on the third floor and entered through an unlocked door in the north stairwell.
Martin says that door is always locked, pointing out signs reading no access, prohibited area. It’s prohibited because it is home to the police evidence locker.
Williamson says the door was unlocked, and they were surveying what needed to be done to the building. Martin says they should have met with him, if for nothing else “out of courtesy.”
Roofers were surveying the roof this week. Electricians were fixing the elevator. The City Council adopted a resolution to spend $309,250
on zero turn mowers, deck mowers and a front end loader for the public works department, the big ticket items – 11 new police packaged vehicles at a cost of $275,000 – were for the police department.
According to the city’s budget, $18,000 was designated for repairs and maintenance of the public safety building. Although the proposed budget has not been made public, this amount is certain to increase in the 2007 – 2008 fiscal year, as the need for repairs has displaced the detective division.
Including Chief Martin, there are currently 59 police officers. There are four, full-time motorcycle officers in the traffic division. Turnover throughout the department has been more than average, with veteran officers expressing discontent and leaving. But for every officer leaving the department, a new recruit is looking for an opportunity. Recruits are paid $25,563 a year to start. The chief’s salary is $50,000, which is lower than that of most cities in Alabama the size of Selma.
Officers must graduate from the police academy, which officers say is one of the toughest in the state. The department is under staffed, according to the rank and file. Martin says his goal for staffing is 68 officers. The veteran officers agree with the chief on this point, but there are areas where about half of the department’s veterans sharply disagree. Some are even bitter.
Friday morning prospective candidates were put through a physical agility and ability test, which included push-ups, sit-ups
and a timed mile and a half run.
Should candidates meet the physical requirements,
they are given a study booklet to a written test. If they pass the written test they go through a background check. Should they clear the background check, candidates face a psychological evaluation, then a polygraph exam. Then they go before a review board. The board makes a recommendation, but the final decision belongs to the chief.
Police say a small percentage of applicants make it through the process to actually become a hire. For example, on Friday potential hires were eliminated at each phase of the physical exam. Some that made it through the push-ups and sit-ups, were boiled out by the timed run.
However, there are more recruits joining their ranks. Five are scheduled to attend the police academy. Some of the veteran officers say the review committee is ineffective if the chief doesn’t take their recommendations. They allege officers are being hired without adequate background investigations.
Martin goes about his daily walk, filled with brisk walks to and from appointments. There is traffic in and out of his office, meetings and speaking engagements. Last week he spoke to members of the Selma Kiwanis Club.
Martin revealed that crime is down in the city. However, exact statistics are currently unavailable.
Martin spent part of his Friday responding to letters from citizens thanking him for his help. He responded to one handwritten letter from a ranking officer who expressed their regret in not being able to join the 37 officers who attended Monday’s City Council meeting to express their concern over statements made by councilmembers Cain and Williamson in letters to the editor of The Selma Times-Journal.
Some of Martin’s subordinates don’t like his management style. They say it’s because the chief never supervised anyone within the department. Now he’s their boss. One of the problems, more than one officer says, is
lack of communication. They say they never meet with
Martin collectively and he manages by memo.
“And it’s because there would be questions and he doesn’t know the answers,” one officer says. “We need an assistant chief. We need someone that’s an advocate for the officers. We don’t need a yes man to the system. The (City of Selma’s) public safety committee should be talking to us. Nobody does.”
Chief Martin, who has been with the SPD since 1991, was appointed Selma’s top cop by Perkins, whose appointment powers have been sought by several members of the City Council. Prior to his appointment as chief,
Martin was the chief investigator for the SPD narcotics unit. He served under current members of ranking officers who are now taking orders from him.
“It’s just change,” one officer said.
“I have nothing but respect for him. He’s (Chief Martin) been nothing but honest to me,” another officer says. “Then there’s egos, and some racism. There are those who think it should have been them. But if you have the leadership skills and the communications skills, and are a leader, I’d rather have him.”
One veteran officer says he’s seen the shift in morale in the SPD during its highs and lows, “but morale has to be as low as it’s been since the Randy Lewellen days.”
“I could list a dozen things that could help,” the officer continued. “A lot of people say, ‘He shouldn’t be the chief.’ I think things are getting better. He’s for the department.”
Because Chief Martin is
a political appointment, some officers say it’s “a huge mistake” to mix politics with policing.”
Cars & Equipment
The department has 46 uniformed officers. There are 10 plain clothed detectives. There are four full-time motor officers in the traffic division. There are five motorcycles in operation, and one out of service. There are two 2000 Harleys, two 1996 Kawasakis, and one 1993 Yamaha.
On Thursday the City Council reconvened its regular meeting to vote on a resolution to spend some excess cash the City had left over from this fiscal year. In that was the 11 new police cars, complete with the standard “police package” municipalities purchase for patrolmen. Perkins said the cash purchase, which will be a made once the lowest bidder is identified, took advantage of the City’s strong cash position. It is the result of an increase in the city’s sales tax revenue.
One officer said he didn’t see what all the fuss was about between the City Council and the Dallas County Commission. He says police officers and the general public would benefit from another tower.
“In a way, Mayor Perkins was good for the city. It was time for a change. In a way, he’s been bad for the city. Men (other officers) have been leaving for a while, and that kind of puts doubt in your mind.”
Officers feel city officials should spend more time seeing to the needs of all aspects of city government, which serves the people. The police department, they say, has been neglected for quite some time.
“I could be out on West Dallas past Morgan Academy and they can barely hear me on my radio,” the officer says. “An officer’s radio is his lifeline.”
Officers said they need better communications equipment, and some electric taser guns could be a big help. SPD officers carry mace in addition to their issued 40 cal. Glocks. The SPD has an equipment locker, which includes ammo, surveillance equipment, assault rifles, shotguns and two sniper rifles.
“You try bringing down a crack-crazed man with some mace,” one officer says. Get somebody cracked out and see how well that spray works. It don’t.”
and the City Council appointed a Crime Task Force, which consisted of a cross-section group of individuals from varying backgrounds from all over the city. Co-chaired by Billy Atchison, an Alabama Power Company executive, and Barbara Brown, a community advocate who lost two sons to violent deaths in Selma, the Task Force met every Tuesday for four months.
“We want to try to make a difference,” says Dennis Rutledge, a member of the Crime Task Force. “Citizens came to us, and we’re taking their concerns to the City Council. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but we came away with some recommendations. One of our recommendations was the curfew.”
The City Council enacted a curfew for youths from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. during the week and midnight to 6 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It was approved in the wake of the SPD announcing the break-up of a burglary ring that allegedly consisted of juveniles ranging in ages from 11 to 17 – including two females.
The recent arrests of 12 alleged drug dealers from the St. Phillip Street area that federal authorities indicted on multiple counts of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana, sparked a controversy that further fed the division within the department. Several officers interviewed said the SPD couldn’t halt the open-air drug sales, because the leader of its narcotics unit resigned following a confrontation with Chief Martin. Others say “that’s just another reason to throw salt.”
Some officers say politics and policing doesn’t mix. They don’t care who appoints the chief, “it just needs to be fair.”
“We’re not sure if the mayor knows how low morale really is,” one officer says. “We’re not allowed to talk to him. We’re not sure the council knows the plight we’re in. We need politics out of law enforcement, and let us do our jobs.”