An Alabama town wanted its police officers fired over supposedly racist text messages, but couldn’t proceed with the terminations due to a legal issue. So in a loophole, the city council voted to disband the entire department instead.
Located in central Alabama, the city of Vincent has a population of just under 2,000 people. Its police department consisted of three employees — the police chief, an assistant chief and an officer. The assistant police chief is alleged to have sent the racially-charged text to the fellow two officers, WBRC FOX 6 reported.
The text, which involved an inflammatory joke about slavery and pregnancy, was made public earlier this month. At that point, the then-police chief said the matter was being handled and that "appropriate disciplinary action" had been taken, AL.com reported on Aug. 2. The chief did not name the persons involved in the text exchange.
At an emergency meeting on Aug. 4, Vincent’s city council voted to suspend the police chief and assistant chief, and the third officer reportedly resigned that evening.
But the community was concerned about the officers returning to work, with many wanting them out.
"This has torn this community apart. It doesn’t matter what color we are as long as we do right by people," City Councilman Corey Abrams said.
The city council reportedly advised the mayor to fire them all — but the mayor said that wasn’t possible.
In order to terminate any of the officers, they would need two prior write-ups and a verbal warning on file, Mayor James Latimer said.
So, the city found a loophole.
Disbanding the department
Vincent City Council drafted an ordinance that would disband the entire police department instead. Disbanding the department allowed the officers to be taken off the payroll in a layoff capacity.
The decision, though, left many residents fearful of slower future police response. The mayor said services would be contracted out to a nearby sheriff’s department, an option that had been on the table previously to the city for other various reasons.
The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office publicly condemned the text message the day after the officers were suspended.
"Sheriff Samaniego stands with the City of Vincent in providing emergency law enforcement related services for the citizens during this time," a press release stated on Aug. 5.
In the weeks following, the community was divided over disbanding the department and contracting out emergency services. More than a dozen people spoke in another emergency meeting on Thursday, Aug. 18.
During that meeting, the mayor confirmed the text message in question was sent in June and that he found out about it when a councilmember brought it to his attention. "In mid-July, the officer in question was disciplined," Latimer said.
But the text wasn’t made public until weeks later, a concern some residents brought up, along with the fact that the officer likely would have been allowed to return to work.
"I have concerns that an officer that was on the force for as long as he was — you’re not going to convince me that’s not the first racist thing he’s said or texted," one resident said, bringing about claps and cheers from the dozens of others in attendance at the meeting. "The fact that someone had to get it public before it was taken care of is a concern."
The future of Vincent’s police department
After the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, in which the council allowed for a Q&A with the mayor after hearing from several citizens, they voted unanimously to dissolve the department.
Though one key word in the ordinance is being stressed — "temporary."
"This has never been intended as a permanent solution," Latimer said before the vote. "There is still that opportunity to bring it back."
Council didn’t put a timeline on when the department should try to be up and running again, with one councilmember commenting it will take time to "build from the ground up."
Meanwhile, the contract for emergency services with Shelby County has begun, WBRC FOX6 News reported Saturday.
This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.