Huntsville asks state to take over investigations when city police shoot someone

By Ashley Remkus

The Huntsville Police Department will no longer conduct criminal investigations of its own officers when they shoot someone.

The City Council on Thursday night approved a resolution to allow Mayor Tommy Battle to enter an agreement with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency for state police to conduct the criminal investigations of such incidents. The agreement says the State Bureau of Investigation will investigate when a Huntsville police officer shoots someone, when someone dies in city police custody or when someone dies while a city officer is trying to take them into custody.

“We think it’s a great step forward in terms of helping people understand the transparency, understand a comfort level that someone from the outside is putting an outside set of eyes on the process and running that process and it is not going to be run by HPD,” John Hamilton, the city administrator, told the council.

The agreement will end the Huntsville police department’s longtime practice of assigning one of its homicide investigators to probe deadly encounters between police officers and members of the public. While state police will handle the criminal investigations, Huntsville’s Internal Affairs unit will still investigate potential policy violations.

The state police have agreements to investigate uses of force by many police departments — including Birmingham and Montgomery. Huntsville is the only big city in Alabama that exclusively investigates its own officers when they use deadly force.

The state police will report the results of their criminal investigations to both the police department and the Madison County District Attorney’s Office. The DA’s office decides whether cases should be prosecuted.

The police department’s internal review board, which is made up of three captains, will still conduct internal reviews of shootings and other uses of force to determine whether officers violated policy or should face any disciplinary action. In a statement to AL.com, Chief Mark McMurray said the review board also helps the police department assess its own performance.

“We learn every day and the best way to determine what is and isn’t working is to continually assess our actions and outcomes,” McMurray said in the written statement. “The Incident Review Board allows us to do that.”

McMurray, speaking at a city council work session about police reform nearly four months ago, announced plans to have the state police take over the criminal investigations. He said then that the change would lead to more transparency.

The agreement says that both SBI and the Huntsville police department will coordinate and discuss what information should be released to the press and public before either agency issues press releases or holds news conferences.

“Information related to any SBI investigation is considered law-enforcement-sensitive and must be protected from unauthorized release or disclosure,” the agreement says. “To the best of their abilities, the parties shall ensure investigative information, including but not limited to information known at the time Huntsville Police Department notifies SBI of the incident and information Huntsville Police Department and SBI discover during the investigation, is secure from unauthorized release or disclosure from inception through conclusion of the investigation.”

The agreement comes just over three months after Huntsville police officer William Ben Darby was convicted of murder for shooting and killing Jeff Parker, a man who was threatening suicide three years ago.

A Huntsville police homicide detective led the investigation of that case. An internal police review board, after watching a presentation about the shooting, voted to clear Darby of wrongdoing and determined that he followed department policy. But the Madison County District Attorney’s Office, after watching the same presentation and reviewing the investigative file, decided to take the case to a grand jury which indicted Darby for murder.

After a Madison County jury on May 7 found Darby guilty of murder, he remained on the city payroll for more than two months, until his resignation in late July. The city said it was unable to conduct a disciplinary hearing to decide whether to fire Darby because of a change in his leave status.

AL.com reported that Darby went on medical leave after his conviction and that the city appeared to have asked other police officers to donate their sick leave days to him.

Frances Akridge, the City Council member representing east Huntsville, on Thursday introduced a resolution to change the city’s personnel policy.