Hearings on missing cars still necessary

Published 12:28 am Tuesday, May 12, 2009

It is likely there will be no hearings to determine what went wrong when the Selma Police Department lost three automobiles taken into custody a couple of years ago. The Selma City Council came within one vote of holding hearings, but Council person Dr. Monica Newton flip-flopped on her vote. Initially, she said she favored holding the hearings. Later, she changed her vote, making the hearings a moot point, unless someone from the negative side brings up the issue again.

The Selma Times-Journal has advocated hearings on the losses of these vehicles, and this editorial board still believes the hearings are necessary. The city council is akin to a legislative body. Legislative bodies set policy and hold hearings to determine if policy needs adjusting or if policy has been followed. Legislative bodies perform this function from Congress on down to the very basics of our democratic Republic — the city council.

Something went very wrong for the police department to lose three vehicles and have to pay thousands of dollars to the owners of those vehicles. If proper policy and procedure had been followed, the city would not be out at least a half-year’s salary of some employee during these tight budget times. Additionally, the inability of certain officers or management to follow city policy — and Alabama state law — in regards to these vehicles denotes a problem either in training or in obedience.

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A publicly held investigative hearing would state the problem, explore the gaps and help our policy-making body set standards so this does not happen again. We can’t always trust that a William Riley will be chief of police; there may come a day when someone who is less attuned to policies and procedures takes over at the helm of the police department. Without some method of holding one responsible for action, the lesson of these lost automobiles is lost.

As to the argument that a police officer could claim the 5th Amendment of the right against self-incrimination, the council should take into consideration the Garrity Rule that a department member may be compelled to give statements under threat of discipline or discharge, but those statements may not be used in the criminal prosecution of the individual officer. Thus, the council could order officers to answer questions under threat of disciplinary action; ask questions that are specifically, directly and narrowly related to the officer’s duties or the officer’s fitness for duty and advise the officer that the answers to the questions will not be used against the officer in criminal proceedings. After receiving this warning and the officer refuses to answer the questions, the officer may be disciplined for insubordination.

The city council should step up and reconsider holding the hearings.