A Tiny Alabama Town Is Growing Its Police Force by Fining Everybody in Sight

Brookside in Alabama has less than 1500 residents. For most of the past decade it saw little crime—only 55 major crimes in eight years, none homicide or rape.

In the last few years however, the town’s small size has resulted in a large police force. Today, they are Birmingham NewsReports why. There is a mayor and police department that are determined to bring in as much revenue as possible.

Birmingham NewsJohn Archibald, columnist reports that Brookside’s revenues from forfeitures and fines soared by more than 64% in the two years between 2018-2020. They now account for half of the total city income. Archibald found that Brookside was in 2020 arresting more misdemeanors per capita than its residents. Because so many are trying to challenge the charges, the police have to control traffic to the town hall to collect the fines.

The town’s revenue jumped from $431637 in 2016 and $1,2334,469 in 2020. The jump in revenue was not caused by tax receipts. Brookside is the only place where commercial taxes are generated. Sixty-one thousand dollars in fines, forfeitures and seizures (from the seizure of vehicles in traffic stops) were collected by Brookside. Half of the town’s budget comes from the fining of travelers. The amount that the police make is even more. CompleteRevenue stream was just five years old.

Archibald’s cases will show you exactly what to expect if the notion that an ex-mining town north of Birmingham is home to speeders, reckless drivers and other criminals seems suspect. They are searching for every reason to arrest and cite people.

Brookside officers are being accused of using racist language, fabricating charges and making up laws to pile on the criminal cases against 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.

Archibald tells the horrifying story of Rev. Vincent Witt was pulled over by Brookside police for having a papertag. Witt was driving a brand new car and his tag was valid. Witt said he asked Brookside if Brookside pulled him over this way. Witt also claims that Brookside called Witt an racial slur, and told Witt to leave the area.

Witt called police to report a problem and was informed that he had to go to the police station to make a formal complaint. It was then that things got weird. Witt, his sister and another person were later charged with impersonating officers. Brookside uploaded their photos to their Facebook page. Crime Stoppers then featured them as suspects. After causing damage to Witts’ reputation, the case was dropped.

Witt and Witt’s sibling have filed a federal lawsuit for malice prosecution. Brookside claimed that the officers in question are entitled qualified immunity. Perhaps a sign of the severity of the situation in Brookside is that District Court Judge Abdul Kallon of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Alabama allowed immunity only for the stop.  The “bizarre” behavior of the police officers afterward did not qualify for protection, he ruled. “Given the alleged and, truthfully, bizarre conduct—issuing and approving fabricated charges against Pastor Witt and Ms. Witt for impersonating police officers, without probable cause, and publicizing the charges on Facebook and Crime Stoppers in retaliation for Pastor Witt’s complaint—the court is unconvinced that [the officers]Qualified immunity is available to them.

Alabama’s police are given strong incentives for forfeiture. The Institute for Justice has given Alabama a D-grade for civil asset forfeiture. The state does not track and report forfeiture expenditure. Police can claim property by saying that it is connected to a criminal, but this threshold is lower than what the law requires to convict someone of the crime. They get 100 percent of the proceeds. In order to get back the property, people who have been involved in forfeiture proceedings are made to prove that they’re not criminals.

Brookside certainly is a prime example of police spending and funding that has been sloppy. Archibald was informed by Archibald that the mayor and police chief don’t know the exact spending of the fine money. It doesn’t have any formal budgeting system. However, as fines started rolling in, police funding soared 560 percent. Police officers were then required to continue finding criminals to finance to get paid.

Witt may have been lucky that they did not try to steal his car.

This is Mike Jones, Brookside’s chief police officer. He doesn’t see any problem and believes that fines are a positive story.

“I see a 600% increase—that’s a failure,” Jones told Archibald. You’d be able to do more if you had more officers. It could be even more, I believe.