Metropolis

How Cops Turned a Stretch of Highway Into a Small Town’s ATM

A police car is seen down an empty road.
A police vehicle patrols outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama, on March 29, 2021. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Why is AL.com columnist John Archibald warning that people stay away from Brookside, a small Alabama town just outside Birmingham? Simple: the police. Brookside has only one commercial building, a Dollar General, and is mostly known for its annual Russian Food Festival. But when Archibald started writing about the criminalization of poverty in this region, a number of sources kept pointing him up the interstate, and saying, There’s something going on over there. That’s when he started pulling Brookside’s legal documents and realized that cops seemed to be bilking motorists along part of the nearby highway for cash. Like a lot of places with lower tax revenues, municipalities in Alabama need to get creative to raise money. And making money from pulling people over on the highway is not news. But the extent to which officers in Brookside go for revenue is on another level. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Archibald about how easy it’s been for a single police department to turn a mile and a half of highway into an ATM, why no one stopped it along the way, and why people who don’t live in Brookside should pay attention. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: For people who don’t live anywhere near Brookside, Alabama, why should they pay attention to what’s happening in this small town?

John Archibald: Brookside is an extreme example of a type of policing that’s going on all over this country. There’s no greater way in which your rights can be infringed than by becoming prey to someone with a badge and a gun who simply sees you as a way to pay the bills.

I’ve covered a lot of communities like this that did the same sort of thing, but never quite on the same scale. Here, half the city budget coming from fines and forfeitures. Nobody can look at that and say that’s the way government was designed to run. A state legislator years ago was ticketed twice for speeding. He had a law passed that said towns under 19,000 cannot issue speeding tickets on the interstate. But the police here get around it because they don’t stop you for speeding: If your lights are too bright or your tag lights too dim, they’ll pull you over. And if you’re following someone too closely, or if you’re driving too long in the left lane, they will pull you over.

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Looking at over the city’s audits, the fines and fees were broken out. In 2018, Brookside had somewhere in the range of $80,000 in fines and forfeitures, which made up 14 percent of the city budget. The next year, it doubled. Then the year after that, it had grown 600 percent, so by 2020, it was 49 percent of the budget. Let me just back up and say that between 2011 and 2018—the year when this change began—Brookside had reported a total of 55 crimes over that eight-year period. None of them were homicide or rape; if there were any robberies, there were just one or two. According to the town’s own reporting, there was essentially zero serious crime in this town.

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At the same time that there’s barely any crime, these fines and fees are stacking up. Vehicle towing has gone up by more than a thousand percent: 1.7 tows for every household. Arrests have gone up too. By 2020, that meant more misdemeanor arrests than the town has residents.

It’s an extreme case where Brookside has 1,253 people and at least 10 full-time police officers along with several part-time officers. These cops line up along 1½ miles of the interstate They will find any reason they can to pull you over and then they’ll bring out their drug-sniffing dogs. They’ll keep the driver in their car for a while, talking to them, sniffing the car out, finding some reason to charge the operator, whether they find drugs or lack of insurance or whatever.

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If you show up to court, because the municipal court is open only once a month, there’s a line out the door of people who have been pulled over by the police and are there to figure out if there’s some way out of it. What do you hear when you stand in that line?

Outrage. Every story is an outrage. People say, I was ticketed for driving 2 miles per hour over the speed limit, or I was ticketed for running a stop sign that I didn’t run, over and over and over again. During COVID, they’re not letting a lot of people in the courtroom. So the police direct court traffic into this field, and they make other people sit in the car while they call the people charged. The claim by a lot of those people is that while their family members are sitting in cars, the police line them up and then bring the drug-sniffing dogs out into the parking lot to sniff for more drugs.

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It’s like double dipping.

Exactly. And if you go in and agree to pay your money, the court has an ability to stack charges on people. Like, somebody was arrested for a small amount of marijuana, and the court charged him with the marijuana and with the rolling paper as paraphernalia that covered the joint or whatever. The bags are paraphernalia. A tray that may have once held marijuana is paraphernalia. In this particular case, the guy ended up having a $12,000 fine and a $6,000 appeal bond, which is insane for just a misdemeanor drug charge.

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For a drug that’s legal in a whole bunch of states.

Right? And he had enough money to hire a lawyer who appealed. But if it goes to state court, they typically just don’t show up.

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The police department just doesn’t show up?

Right. If you put up a fight, it’s as if they don’t pursue it because it’s just not in their profit plan.

They’ll just take the loss, move on.

Right. But if you’re in city court, the M.O. is if you plead guilty, you pay, you’re done. But the fee is going to be pretty outrageous. You can pay $5,000 for a series of minor traffic crimes. If you appeal, if you plead not guilty, they’ll say, We’ll hear that later. It’s a long, arduous process to fight one of these cases. Again, we’re not talking about serious crimes.

I want to zoom in on the story of one person who was stopped because what happened to them seems so egregious to me on its face. Can you tell the story of what happened to Rev. Vincent Witt?

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Vincent Witt, a Black Baptist preacher, was driving through Brookside with his wife and he had just bought a new black Cadillac. It still had paper tags on the back, from within a week of his purchase. He was pulled over and told it was because he had a paper tag and because there had been a reported stolen vehicle that maybe matched his car’s description. I’ve never seen information that documented that actually this was the case, but that was what was said. Witt is a chaplain for another tiny suburb in western Jefferson County and around Birmingham, and when he pulled out his license, there was a little badge noting his chaplain position. The officer ended up not giving the guy a ticket, but the reverend said, Why did you stop me? You just stopped everybody. Allegedly, the officer called him the N-word, told him to stay out of Brookside, and walked off.

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That wasn’t the end of Witt’s ordeal with the Brookside PD. He called up the department to complain about the way he was treated. Even though he didn’t end up filing a formal report, officers seem to have taken note. Witt’s sister was the first one to notice what happened next. A friend sent her a link to a website called Crime Stoppers. That’s where she and her brother were both listed—as fugitives. This goes so far beyond a traffic stop.

Right? It’s really frightening. Frankly, a lot of people have fear of something just like that. Charging people all these high fines and fees is not necessarily illegal. I’ve had a couple of different legislators here who have said they’ve decided they want to introduce bills to address that in the coming session. But the bottom line is when you choose not to fund your government through taxes, then your government’s going to find ways to make that money up. We’ve seen it here with all sorts of corruption. But when it happens with your police department, it becomes something else entirely.

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I know you spoke to the chief of police, and I was struck by his story because when he was hired, he was the only full time police officer. In the ensuing years, he’s hired additional full-time officers. How does the police officer–per-resident ratio in Brookside compare with other places?

Based on his deposition, it would have been one officer for every 144 people—way more than the national average, which would be one for every 588 people. It’s dramatic in a town that did not report any crime for a long time.

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