After more than two months of off and on protests and calls for police reform around the country and in north Alabama, the Huntsville Police Department (HPD) released its response to a list of changes pushed for by local organizations.
Community activist Rev. Dexter Strong said Friday was "a good first step in a marathon of steps."
"I'm happy that HPD was responsive to community requests, but I am disappointed with what they put forward. The posture predominantly is that HPD is doing everything right already or it's constrained by state law. And if this posture continues to be the predominant attitude of HPD and city officials there will continue to be a rift between community leaders and the people who are called to protect and serve," Strong said.
Huntsville Police Lt. Michael Johnson said many of the items called for by community organizations, like banning chokeholds and having an independent oversight committee, were already in place before coming up in recent weeks.
According to the report, Huntsville Police stopped training its officers to perform "lateral vascular neck restraints," commonly referred to as "chokeholds," back in 2014. However, the document states that while they are not taught in training, chokeholds are not outright forbidden by HPD.
It states that "while 'chokeholds' are not a trained technique, and are not authorized under normal situations, there are circumstances when an officer's survival may allow for untrained techniques to be used."
Lt. Johnson said that the department is making some changes based on the recommendations from community groups like the Citizens Coalition for Criminal Justice Reform. One update is to have an internal committee made up of a captain and a few lieutenants who will be tasked with reviewing policies every two weeks.
"Having a committee is going to add structure. It's definitely going to make the policy making process change a little bit more robust," Lt. Johnson said.
A timeline for when that will begin hasn't been determined, but Lt. Johnson said it is in active development. He also said some former community programs will be coming back in the near future and the department will launch a podcast to have an ongoing dialogue with members of the community.
In addition, within the next 90 days, they will start populating a website with the department's policies and written directives. Lt. Johnson said he thinks that that along with the report published Friday will help keep the public engaged and interested in policing.
"We're hoping it has a positive effect with what we released. We're trying to be as transparent as possible. Everything, like I said, from our training to our policies to our community outreach programs," Lt. Johnson said.
Huntsville City Council Member Frances Akridge said she is supportive of the police department and was glad to see some of the steps taken with Friday's report.
She said she is looking into ways to amend the Huntsville Police Citizens Advisory Council (HPCAC), one of which would be to allow them the ability to continuously have access to the misconduct reports of officers.
"I think it would be very helpful if the Citizens Advisory Council not only every once in a while say, 'Oh, let's take a look at those stats,' but that they review them every month," Akridge said.
However, Strong said that the HPCAC needs far more independent power than it currently possesses.
"A citizens' advisory committee without subpoena power is toothless. And I also believe that the Citizens Advisory Committee should be completely detached from the political process. I'm not sure if elected officials should be appointing people to represent the interests of the public, considering that elected officials have political interests to protect and will appoint people who are reflective of their ideology," Strong said.
He said the HPCAC would be better suited under a diversity and inclusion office in the city government. It's unclear if the HPCAC as it currently exists could be moved under the purview of the current Office of Multicultural Affairs in Huntsville.
Right now, the organization is in the midst of reevaluating the protests that happened in Huntsville in early June in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The results of that won't be known until likely late August or early September, but Strong argued on Friday that even without seeing that review, he said HPD needs to make some changes to how it responds to protests like those.
"If HPD believes that they responded appropriately on June 1 and June 3, as per their bylaws, then there's a vast gulf between the value systems at work at HPD and among municipal leaders and people who feel disaffected and abused by law enforcement," Strong said.
Community input on those protests is welcomed by the HPCAC until August 7.