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Speed Trap Gold Mine

by Jayson Hawkins

All the attention garnered by cops murdering unarmed Black men in America in recent years has led to widespread calls for “police reform,” a rather ambiguous term advocating changes in how police interact with communities of color and new policies to counteract decades of mass incarceration. Lost in the tumult of the resulting debates are stories about low-level police misconduct and abuse of power; stories like the tale of a “speed trap” on steroids in Brookside, Alabama.

Brookside is a small town of 1,500 souls. Years ago, it was a mining town, but now, the only taxable business is a Dollar General Store. The rest of the city revenue comes from property levies and fines. In 2016, total municipal receipts were $432,637, above average for a town the size of Brookside in Alabama but not remarkable.

By 2020, receipts had surged to $1,233,469. There has been no commercial or property boom. The only change has been an exponential growth in speeding tickets and other minor citations. In fact, police are currently raking in a sum greater than the town’s entire 2016 revenue stream.

It seems unlikely that a small town with a mile-and-a-half jurisdiction on Interstate 22 became a hotbed of traffic crime overnight. What seems more probable is that city officials made a conscious decision to turn traffic stops into a business.

John Archibald of the Birmingham News has collected dozens of accounts from victims of Brookside cops. People like Rev. Vincent Witt, who was pulled over and cited for paper tags, even though the car was brand new, and the tags were legitimate. Or Ramon Perez, who was cited for rolling through a stop sign, even though Perez claims he was at a complete stop for nearly 30 seconds.

In 2020, Brookside police made more misdemeanor arrests than the city has people. When the town holds municipal court once a month, there are so many people that police have to direct traffic. Police ordered 789 vehicles towed in 2020, up from 50 in 2018, and averaging 1.7 tows for every household in the town.

Not surprisingly, the city has come under fire. At least five lawsuits are pending, and even county officials have started to express concern. Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway said, “We get calls about Brookside regularly because they really go outside their jurisdiction to stop people.”

City officials, however, are not backing down. Brookside Police Chief Mike Jones calls the transformation a “positive story,” and when asked about the possibility his officers go too far, his response was unequivocal. “I see a 600% increase—that’s a failure. If you had more officers and more productivity you’d have more. I think it could be more.”

Social justice advocates are not convinced. Faced with the concept of a police chief calling tickets “productivity,” Carla Crowder of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice said, “Brookside is a poster child for policing for profit.... No one can objectively look at this and conclude this is good government that is keeping us safer.”

As a debate rages over police using deadly force and the movement to “defund” police as violent crime rises, itwould be easy to pass over the activities of a town like Brookside. The problem is that towns like Brookside are everywhere, and as long as the police there abuse their power with impunity and fill the city’s coffers as a result, the difficulty of building the right social climate to have a productive debate about police reform will only increase. 


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