Police in this tiny Alabama town suck drivers into legal ‘black hole’
By John Archibald | [email protected]
Ramon Perez came to court last month ready to fight the tickets he’d been handed by Brookside police, including one for rolling through a stop sign and another for driving 48 mph in a 40 zone.
He swore he’d seen the cop from a distance and was careful as he braked.
“I saw him and we looked eye to eye,” the Chelsea business owner said. “There’s no way I was going to run that stop sign.”
When he got to court Dec. 2, he saw scores of people just like him lining up to stand before Judge Jim Wooten, complaining of penny-ante “crimes” and harassment by officers. He saw so many people trying to park in the grassy field outside the municipal building that police had to direct traffic.
He figured there was no point.
“I saw the same attitude in every officer and every person,” he said. “That’s why I hesitated to fight it. They were doing the same thing to every person that was there. They own the town.”
Perez, it appears, was right.
Months of research and dozens of interviews by AL.com found that Brookside’s finances are rocket-fueled by tickets and aggressive policing. In a two-year period between 2018 and 2020 Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared more than 640 percent and now make up half the city’s total income.
And the police chief has called for more.
The town of 1,253 just north of Birmingham reported just 55 serious crimes to the state in the entire eight year period between 2011 and 2018 – none of them homicide or rape. But in 2018 it began building a police empire, hiring more and more officers to blanket its six miles of roads and mile-and-a-half jurisdiction on Interstate 22.
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By 2020 Brookside made more misdemeanor arrests than it has residents. It went from towing 50 vehicles in 2018 to 789 in 2020 – each carrying fines. That’s a 1,478% increase, with 1.7 tows for every household in town.
The growth has come with trouble to match. Brookside officers have been accused in lawsuits of fabricating charges, using racist language and “making up laws” to stack counts on passersby. Defendants must pay thousands in fines and fees – or pay for costly appeals to state court – and poorer residents or passersby fall into patterns of debt they cannot easily escape.
“Brookside is a poster child for policing for profit,” said Carla Crowder, the director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, a nonprofit devoted to justice and equity. “We are not safer because of it.”
“It could be more”
Brookside now faces at least five lawsuits. Advocates for justice reform, cops in other jurisdictions, even Jefferson County’s top law enforcement officials, have begun to question the town’s tactics, and its need for an expanding force.
“It’s my understanding that a guy can go out there and I mean, he can fall into a black hole,” Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr said of drivers getting entangled financially. “You know, we’ve had a lot of issues with Brookside.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway said the same.
“We get calls about Brookside quite regularly because they really go outside their jurisdiction to stop people,” Pettway said. “Most of the time people get stopped, they’re going to get a ticket. And they’re saying they were nowhere near Brookside.”
Police stops soared between 2018 and 2020. Fines and forfeitures – seizures of cars during traffic stops, among other things – doubled from 2018 to 2019. In 2020 they came to $610,000. That’s 49% of the small town’s skyrocketing revenue.
“This is shocking,” said Crowder. “No one can objectively look at this and conclude this is good government that is keeping us safer.”
Because people overwhelmed by debt have been shown to turn to crime to pay their fines “an argument can be made that this kind of policing creates crime,” Crowder said.
Brookside Police Chief Mike Jones, who spearheaded the change and grew the police department tenfold, at least, calls the town’s policing “a positive story.” Mayor Mike Bryan – a former councilman who assumed his position last year after the death of the previous mayor – sits and nods in agreement.
Jones said crime when he took over was higher than it appeared from numbers the town reported to the state. He said response times were long because Brookside often had to rely on the Jefferson County Sheriff’s department for service.
He said he’d like to see even more growth in revenue from fines and forfeitures.
“I see a 600% increase – that’s a failure. If you had more officers and more productivity you’d have more,” Jones said. “I think it could be more.”
When Jones was hired as chief in 2018, he was the only full-time police officer, he said in sworn testimony for a lawsuit filed against him and the city. By last summer, he said in a deposition, Brookside had hired eight additional full-time officers and several part-timers.
Asked in December how many officers were on staff, he refused to say, citing “security” concerns, though police staff sizes are reported regularly to the government for public consumption.
A department of nine officers in a 1,253-person town is far larger than average. Across the country, the average size of a force is one officer for every 588 residents, according to a Governing Magazine study that examined federal statistics.
Last year, based on Jones’ testimony, Brookside had at least one officer for every 144 residents.
Sheriff Pettway gaped at the Brookside ratio. “I could take over the whole county with numbers like that,” he joked.
Then this month the Brookside department posted on Facebook that it had hired six more officers “in an effort to expand our dedication and commitment to provide superior community service & protection.”
A one-store town
Brookside until recently was known for its quirky Russian food festival and the state’s only onion-domed Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a former mining town, its population about the same as it was a decade ago. Fewer than 100 of its residents graduated college.
Brookside is a poor town, 70% white, 21% Black, with a small but growing Hispanic population and a median income well below the state average. The town survives on the fringes of Birmingham with tax revenue from the Dollar General, which forms the totality of its commercial district.
In 2018, when the town had one full-time police officer and a few part-timers, it reported no serious crimes to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center. Brookside Police did patrol the 1.5-mile stretch of Interstate 22 within their jurisdiction and wrote tickets that brought in $82,467 in fines. That contributed a 14% chunk of the city’s total income, a number that would be considered high in much of America.
But Brookside revenues from fines and forfeitures soared after that, and the town’s law-enforcement goals — and its reputation — changed.
By 2020 officers in the sleepy town were undergoing SWAT training and dressing in riot gear, even as the city continued with only a volunteer fire department. It parked a riot control vehicle — townspeople call it a tank — outside the municipal complex and community center. Traffic tickets, and criminalizing those who passed through, became the city’s leading industry.
“We’ll make you famous!”
The police department’s Facebook page – it claims more than a million visitors – became a vehicle for public shaming with embarrassing mugshots and derision for those who owe fines and fees – “Turn yourself in. If we have to come get ya, we’ll make you famous!”
“When you look at their Facebook pages it’s almost like they are bullies. I’ve seen it,” DA Carr said. “I don’t condone it, but you know, I’m not the chief out there.”
And it’s not an idle threat. Arrests on Brookside warrants went from zero to 243 in the span of two years, according to statistics Chief Jones presented to the council.
Jones — again as Mayor Bryan nodded — said the goal of the department is only to help people.
“It’s not about making a dollar,” Jones said.
Yet the town with no traffic lights collected $487 in fines and forfeitures in 2020 for every man, woman and child, though many of those fined were merely passing by on I-22.
Total town income more than doubled from 2018 to 2020 – from $582,000 to more than $1.2 million – as fines and forfeitures rose 640%.
Jones and Bryan said neither the town nor the police department relies on the revenue officers bring in. In fact, they said in November they didn’t know how that money is spent.
Audits by Philip Morgan & Co., covering at least five consecutive years, pointed out as a shortcoming that the town did not have a budget or a policy of adopting one annually. The audits show, however, how the town came to depend on the ticket money.
As more tickets brought in more money, the town began to spend much more. From 2018 to 2020, spending on police rose from $79,000 to $524,000, a 560% increase. The town’s administrative expenditures rose 40% and overall spending jumped 112%, from $553,000 in 2018 to $1.2 million in 2020.
In December the mayor provided AL.com a budget document, based on previous years’ audits. It did not feature a breakout of the police department.
Asked why that was the case, Bryan responded there had been an error, that the heading for the ‘Municipal Court Fund’ was actually the police department budget. “Sorry for the typo,” the mayor wrote.
That document budgeted $646,620 to the police this year.
The town also provided a set of police stats Jones presented to the Brookside council to push for more resources and authority.
It showed that total arrests – custodial, misdemeanor and felony – rose 1,109% from 2018 to 2020. Brookside police made 4.4 arrests in 2020 for every household.
It showed police in 2020 patrolled 114,438 miles in the 6.3-mile town and issued more than 3,000 citations – a 692% increase from 2018.
“We don’t care about tickets,” Jones said. “We don’t like writing tickets.”
‘99 percent of them are lying’
Yet that is hard to swallow for those who line up for court and face financial ruin because of citations. Like those on Dec. 2.
John Walker was stopped in Brookside for following too closely.
“Do you understand what you are charged with?” the judge asked on that first Thursday in December.
“No,” he said. “No.”
Walker told the judge he will fight the charge.
Mayor Bryan dismissed the complaints of those who must appear in court. “Everybody’s got a story,” he said. “And 99% of them are lying.”
Yet the Brookside stories come at an alarming rate.
Sandra Jo Harris, a 52-year-old grandmother, claims in a lawsuit she pulled off I-22 at Cherry Avenue on Jan. 8, 2020, as she often did when she went to visit her daughter. It was nearing dusk, and as she drove into the neighborhood she didn’t think much about the unmarked black SUV with tinted windows on the side of the road. She turned on her lights, according to her lawsuit, because of the approaching darkness.
But when she did, the unmarked SUV pulled into the street, crossed the center line and sped toward her car, blue lights flashing. She was not speeding, or breaking the law, she argued in the suit. She pulled to the side of the road as the SUV pulled behind her, and a wrecker simultaneously parked nearby. It frightened her, and led to more trouble.
Officers, dressed completely in dark, unmarked uniforms approached her, and one accused her of flickering her lights to warn others of their presence, her suit alleges. Unsure what was happening, Harris dialed 911. But an officer grabbed the phone and threw it to the ground, breaking it, the lawsuit says. Police put her in a patrol car and searched her vehicle for drugs.
Harris’ lawyers contend she was taken to the Brookside jail, strip-searched, and told she could be jailed up to two days. She had an asthma attack and a panic attack, but when she knocked on the door to alert a guard, a jailer said if she continued to knock she would be charged with attempting to escape. Eventually she was given an inhaler and treated by paramedics.
Police charged Harris with flickering her lights – or “nuisance of casting lights from motor vehicle on real property at night,” which she argues did not happen and eventually was dropped. She was also charged with resisting arrest. A report quoted in the suit claimed she “tighten (sic) arm muscles from getting handcuff (sic).”
In addition, the police charged her with making a false 911 call, obstructing government operations by refusing to give proper papers, and disorderly conduct for yelling for others to come out of their homes. They let her out of jail at midnight, long after her family had made bond.
Her lawyers argue that the city uses “obscure possible violations” to justify stopping and searching passersby, hoping to add more offenses in a sort of highway lottery to fill the coffers.
“Brookside has operated its police and court system with the primary objective of obtaining revenue from motorists traveling on or near Interstate-22,” Harris’ lawyers wrote in a suit filed last year. “It has had a continued practice of stopping and ticketing scores of vehicles daily, doing so without probable cause or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.”
Brookside has two drug-sniffing dogs — one named K9 Cash — to search the cars of stopped motorists.
Most of the vehicles Brookside Police drive are unmarked, and tinted.
Chief Jones testified under oath that just one of the 10 Brookside vehicles is painted with police striping, but nine others bear no emblems, and seven are tinted all the way around, making it impossible to see inside. Jones testified his officers wear gray uniforms with no Brookside insignias.
In another case, Brookside police last year confiscated a 2014 Honda Civic owned by a man named Sean Wattson, even though Wattson was not driving and was not in the car, according to a lawsuit he filed against the town. He lent his car to a friend, who was pulled over and arrested for drug possession.
Wattson claims he was unaware of the drugs. Still, police seized his car, and refused to return it, though they didn’t begin official forfeiture proceedings.
Both lawsuits continue.
Secret agent names
Neither the mayor nor chief would talk about pending litigation, but both said they have reviewed the cases involved, including bodycam footage, and said they found no wrongdoing on the city’s part. They would not share the footage.
Jones blamed the lawsuits on “ambulance-chasing attorneys.”
But lawyers and law enforcement officers across central Alabama have raised questions about things in Brookside they say they have never otherwise come across.
Lawyer Martin Weinberg had a client in Brookside, a young man named Thomas Hall, who was stopped for speeding and found with a small amount of marijuana.
He was charged with misdemeanor possession, but also five counts of possession of drug paraphernalia, for:
The baggie that held the marijuana
A small jar “that once may have held marijuana”
And a small tray that “might have” been used to roll a joint
The names of the officers were not listed on the tickets in secretive Brookside. Instead, the arresting officer was listed as “Agent JS,” while the assisting officer was “Agent AR.”
A judge set Hall’s fines at $6,000, and he had to post $12,000 bond while he appealed the case, an amount Weinberg considered excessive, and one that would prevent defendants without money or support from arguing their cases in state court.
Hall did appeal, and a Jefferson County judge ultimately dismissed the charges.
Bill Dawson, a lawyer who has represented several clients in Brookside, said defendants have faced possession charges for a joint, with paraphernalia charges tacked on for the paper it was rolled in.
“I’ve never seen a possession case split like that,” he said. “It’s unheard of.”
“False left-lane violation”
Dawson also represents Victoria Brumlow, a young woman who – like hundreds more – was stopped on I-22 and ticketed for driving on the left lane of the interstate. Not speeding, not swerving, just using the left lane.
A Brookside officer ticketed Brumlow under Alabama code section 32-5-77, which her lawyers contend does not contain a crime. But it’s a common charge in Brookside.
She argued that she only drove in the left lane to pass other vehicles, and her ticket – on May 26, 2019 – came five months before Alabama’s Anti-Road Rage Act, a law making it illegal to drive in the left lane of an interstate for more than a mile and a half, went into effect.
Brookside police officers in sworn depositions indicated they did not follow drivers for a full mile and a half before or after the new law was passed, and they continued to write tickets under the old law after the new road rage bill passed.
In May of 2019, the month Brumlow was stopped, Brookside officers ticketed 75 people for driving in the left lane. Between April 2018 and June 2020, they handed out 406 of those tickets, or about 15 a month, according to documents filed in the lawsuit.
“It was something that I should not have been stopped for,” Brumlow said in sworn testimony. “And while sitting in court I heard that half the court was also stopped for the same thing.”
Brumlow pleaded not guilty, and had to go to court over and over again as the case was postponed. A court worker told her she would have to plead guilty or go to driving school. She fought it instead.
Dawson argued in a lawsuit against Brookside and Chief Jones that “Brookside has continuously used the false left lane violation as a reason to stop and detain hundreds of motorists. The motive … was to generate revenue for Brookside.”
Brumlow’s uncle, Jeff Brumlow, is the longtime prosecutor and city attorney for the city of Alabaster, and a GOP candidate for Shelby County district judge. He agreed to represent his niece in her traffic case.
In a sworn deposition in the civil suit Jeff Brumlow said he went to court three times before the case was ultimately dropped, and saw many people – he’d guess 25 to 30% of all defendants – charged with the dubious left lane violation.
“What I had watched in court with the use of this particular charge, I mean, just to be quite frank, it offended me that a court would act that way and that a city would act that way toward people who really don’t have that kind of money,” he testified. “So it was a bit of a moral outrage because I had sat in court three times now and it was no longer a mistake.”
“This was an intentional policy of the city and my niece just happened to get caught up in it and happened to challenge it. And it broke her heart, it broke my heart.”
“Creating a law”
Ramon Perez felt that way as well, sitting in the courtroom and hearing defendants plead to the same charges over and over.
He’d been stopped for rolling the stop sign, which he disputes, and speeding, which he also disputes. He was also ticketed for improper signal, though he can’t even fathom how that might have occurred. He was cited for driving with a suspended license — a matter he thought he’d cleared up — but he doesn’t blame Brookside for that.
It is what happened after the stop that is most concerning to him. He feels the police saw him as prey, and treated him as such.
Perez is Hispanic, and his passenger was a Brookside resident, also Hispanic, who didn’t have her purse with her, Perez said. The officer said he would take them both to jail because she didn’t have her ID.
Which is another problem altogether, Sheriff Pettway said.
“We don’t have a law that says if you don’t have ID, you go to jail,” he said. “If you want to go out there and do something like that, you are creating a law.”
Perez said the officer “went absolutely crazy” over her lack of ID. “He was very ugly from the start.”
Ultimately another officer took Perez to his friend’s house to retrieve her ID, he said. His car was towed — with apologies from the tow-truck driver — costing him several hundred dollars.
Perez ultimately decided to pay the $1,100 fine — on top of hundreds he’d already spent to get his towed car back — and get the heck out of Brookside.
Which is exactly what the town is banking on, according to those who have watched Brookside grow into one of Alabama’s biggest, most troublesome traffic traps.
Perez is angry at his treatment. But he also worries for relatives and employees who live in Brookside. Not all of them can afford to pay their fines as he did, and some have been put on payment plans.
“I feel bad for those guys who struggle,” Perez said. He is still torn, wondering if he should have fought the town harder.
“I should have brought a lawyer, but right now my time is not there,” he said. “But my behavior was right. I know that.”
Sheriff Pettway said those who face charges in Brookside and want to ensure justice can get a bond and appeal their case.
“It may cost some money to go through that process,” he said. “But if you want real justice, I think you’ll go through the process. Fairness and real justice, I believe, is something people are looking for when it comes to law enforcement.
Pettway also said issues with Brookside could draw the attention of the federal government.
“I think it’s one of those situations … that could possibly bring in the feds with some oversight,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they opened up an investigation. You can’t do what’s going on over there.”
https://www.al.com/news/2022/01/police- ... ket-newtab