The mayor of the small city of Vincent said the town couldn’t legally fire police officers for exchanging racist text messages due to legal issues.
So, the city 35 miles southeast of Birmingham disbanded its entire police department instead.
The Vincent City Council voted to adopt an ordinance to “temporarily abolish” its police department Thursday night after a two-hour public hearing at the Vincent Middle/High School auditorium.
“Part of disbanding the police department solves that problem,” Mayor James Latimer said after one attendee asked if the officers involved could ever return to policing the city.
After the meeting, Latimer said that terminating the officers involved in the text messages was not the only reason to disband the city’s police department, but when asked if this was the only way to remove those officers from the payroll, he said “yes.”
The small city in Shelby County, with a population just under 2,000, was thrown into turmoil earlier this month when racist text messages from one of the city’s three police officers were posted online.
In the texts, the officer, who still has not been identified by the city, made a joke involving slavery and pregnant women.
Since then, the officers involved were placed on administrative leave; Latimer said in response to questions at the public hearing that the city did not have the authority to fire those officers because of the city’s personnel policy.
“Based on our personnel policies, we cannot terminate them,” Latimer said.
That policy, Latimer and the city attorney said, required two formal complaints and a verbal warning before a city employee could be terminated.
In the session, Latimer said that dissolving the police department was “the only way” the city could stop paying the officers, explaining that the officers would then be laid off and not fired for cause. He added the text message issue had uncovered a “flaw” in the personnel policy and the policy would need to be amended.
The ordinance abolishing the Vincent Police Department was amended to add the word “temporarily” at the request of Council Member Corey Abrams.
The dissolution of the police department will become official five days after the ordinance is finalized, which should happen Friday, Latimer said. He said the city plans to contract dedicated police services with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office for the next year at least, with the expectation that it would reestablish its own police force in the future.
The sheriff’s office has been providing emergency law enforcement response services since the city first moved to disband its police force earlier this month, saying in a news release that Sheriff John Samaniego “stands with the City of Vincent in providing emergency law enforcement related services for the citizens during this time.”
A timeline of the city’s response
In his comments to the residents, Latimer laid out a more detailed timeline of the text messages and the city’s response.
Latimer said the texts were sent in June and that he first became aware of them in July.
In the message, someone identified as “752″ texts:
“What do y’all call a pregnant slave?”
An unidentified recipient responds twice. “?” and “??”
“752″ answers: “BOGO Buy one, get one free”
Screenshots of the texts began circulating on social media and were reported by AL.com on August 2.
Then-Vincent Police Chief James Srygley said “appropriate disciplinary action” had been taken over the text messages, but the controversy continued.
The city then held a city council meeting where the council recommended the termination of the officers involved and the dissolution of the city police department on August 4.
Latimer said that two of the officers involved have filed paperwork for retirement and the city’s third police officer has resigned in the aftermath of the text messages.
Public speaks their mind
The council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance dissolving the police department after a roughly 90-minute public hearing in which 18 community members spoke on the issue.
Several attendees showed up with white sheets of paper that simply said “DISSOLVE” in large black letters, demanding the city police department be abolished.
The public hearing was mostly cordial, with each speaker getting five minutes, and many Black residents explaining the hurt felt by the text message and the distrust knowing that the police who were supposed to protect them would make such a racist joke.
“You are not in our shoes,” Vincent resident Charles Hamilton, who is Black, said during the public hearing, addressing some of the previous speakers. “You’re not Black, and the joke was not on you, the joke was on us.”
Robert Franklin, a retired welder who is Black and has lived in Vincent all his life, told AL.com before the meeting that he did not support the dissolution of the police department.
“I think [we should] get rid of the two officers that were involved, but not the whole police force,” Franklin said. “There was a third officer who’s kind of being punished for something he didn’t do.”
Franklin said he wanted the sense of community and even family that comes with having police who are based in town and not responding from across the county.
“If you’ve got the local officers, you get to know him,” he said. “You ain’t going to get to know the county officers.”
Others who spoke before and during meeting said they were concerned about increased response time for the sheriff’s office compared to having officers employed by the city.
Kyle Cleveland of Vincent, who is white, said he felt the decision was too rash and that not enough information was presented to the public before the resolution to dissolve the department.
“The right solution is to start with a public hearing,” Cleveland said before the meeting. “The council should give as much information first to the community and then hear how we feel about the issues.
“This issue of dissolving the police department is too big of an issue to just automatically jump to that decision.”