“Alabama State Troopers at dangerously low levels” one discouraging headline recently reminded us.
Since 2010 roadway fatalities in our state have risen an alarming 155%, while at the same time Alabama has dropped State Trooper staffing to a third of the level it should be. According to the State Troopers Association, fewer than 300 Troopers patrol the entire state, a number that should be closer to 750 according to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and should be more than 1000 according to the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama. This dwindling number of front-line defenders are patrolling our highways in vehicles that are up to ten years old and with such high mileage that used car dealers are alarmed.
- Big trucks speed through Alabama with impunity
- Drunk drivers go undetected
- Drug and human traffickers face little risk of arrest
- Overweight vehicles tear up our roads
- Those in need of emergency assistance have much longer wait times because at current staffing many Troopers have to cover multiple counties.
One Trooper was quoted as saying, “The main thing is we need to be highly visible … people need to see troopers on a regular basis to prevent crashes before they happen.” But the truth is that drivers on Alabama roads see far too few State Troopers.
These dismal numbers are part of the reason Alabama was ranked 43rd by U.S. News & World Report on public safety. That goes along with being ranked 44th in low violent crime rate and 3rd worst for murder rate, all added to more than a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of property stolen in Alabama with only $42 million recovered.
Luckily the professionals that serve as State Troopers are supplemented by municipal police departments and sheriffs’ offices, or else we would be in worse shape than we are. But we cannot continue to ask one State Trooper to do the work of three, and currently that’s what we’re doing. We must find ways in each budget year to fund more State Troopers until we get to the level needed to keep Alabama safe.
Here’s what my administration will do to combat this problem.
In the most recently available data, there were more than 270 law enforcement agencies in Alabama in 2016 that employed over 20,000 personnel, including almost 14,000 sworn officers. Despite the embarrassing staffing level of State Troopers, these numbers put Alabama above the national average in officers per capita, which means state government is relying on the sheriffs’ offices and municipal police departments to keep statewide law enforcement staffing up.
But even as we rely on municipal police departments, we hinder them by prohibiting police departments in cities of fewer than 19,000 population from enforcing speeding laws on our interstate highways. That means that more than 70% of local police departments are prohibited from assisting State Troopers in enforcing the most basic of traffic laws. Even though most of these municipalities may not have an interstate highway running through them, we unnecessarily tie the hands of those that do. With appropriate safeguards built in to prohibit unfair speed traps, this law must be repealed to make our highways safer.
In addition to remedying the diminish of State Troopers, there are other steps that Alabama must take to ensure the safety of her people.
- We must reverse the drastic funding cuts that have been made to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. This failure of state leadership means that scientific analysis of critical evidence in criminal cases has slowed to a dangerously slow pace. Homicide, rape, and serious drug prosecutions now must wait years before essential test results are returned to police and prosecutors, which clogs our local jails with those awaiting trial. Overcrowded jails mean more individuals must be released without sufficient bail, which puts dangerous people back on the street and delays justice for victims of crime.
- Disaster preparedness is an essential component to public safety. With the unfortunate experience of the April 27, 2011 tornado that destroyed more than 12% of Tuscaloosa, I have the experience and leadership skills needed to guide Alabama through any catastrophe we may face.
- We also must amend Alabama’s rape statute to remove the requirement that the victim “earnestly resist” the attacker. We do not require victims of murder, robbery, or assault to earnestly resist, and we should not require this of rape victims either. If a person uses physical strength, or threats of death or serious physical injury, to force someone into sex, then that’s rape, and we should not adhere to the archaic and ridiculous thinking that the victim must fight back or else the perpetrator goes free.
- We must also establish closer ties between state agencies and academic institutions such as the University of Alabama Center for Advanced Public Safety so that innovative, technology-driven solutions get into the hands of more and more law enforcement agencies. In 2005, the City of Tuscaloosa Police Department hosted such an initiative when it became the first municipal pilot for the highly successful eCite program, which electronically process traffic citations, saving time and personnel costs. Now over 300 other municipalities including some outside Alabama have deployed eCite, bringing greater efficiency and substantial cost-savings.
- We must further address distracted driving, especially among inexperienced drivers. The texting ban and graduated driver’s licenses were a start, but we need to consider mandatory driver’s education. Although 98% of school systems offer it, driver’s education is not required as part of the state curriculum. Driving is probably the most dangerous activity for teenagers, and formal training is the best way to assure they are capable drivers. Seatbelts are currently mandated for front seat passengers, but in the backseat anyone over the age of 14 does not have to wear one. Contrary to popular belief that the backseat is safer, a recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that unbelted backseat passengers become human missiles in a crash, to devastating effect. We can save lives by requiring everyone in a motor vehicle to wear a seatbelt.
- Finally, we have to address our prison system – a system that releases 95% of its inmates back into society and yet provides virtually no rehabilitation. Very little work skills training, drug counseling, and mental health treatment is provided in a system that is at double its design capacity, under federal court order for its horrendous failure to treat mentally ill inmates, and that offers no supervision for a third of those released and virtually no reentry services for any of them returning to society. Not only is it a recipe for disaster during incarceration, it leads to a disturbing rate of recidivism. Forty percent of state inmates have previously been in prison, and studies show that half of released prisoners return within three years. Warehousing instead of rehabilitating prisoners makes for career criminals. Our Department of Corrections must be funded to a level that we can start making progress on all these issues, something we’re currently not seeing in Montgomery.
- Other dramatic improvements to public safety will come through implementation of plans we have already issued, such as our school safety plan, repairing our deteriorating roads and bridges, improving mental health care, and effectively addressing the opioid crisis.
In the City of Tuscaloosa, where I’ve been mayor since 2005, we’ve had tremendous success in promoting and improving public safety. Over the past 10 years, my administration has overseen a 45% decrease in burglaries, 42% decrease in auto thefts, 35% decrease in murders, and 18% decrease in robberies. Tuscaloosa Police Department is one of the best trained and equipped law enforcement agencies in Alabama, maintaining strong community involvement through the Police Athletic League (PAL) led by Olympic Champion Lillie Leatherwood, a juvenile crime prevention program that places police officers with at-risk youth through athletics, educational activities, and cultural trips; the Teen and Police Service Academy (TAPS), a successful mentoring program that reduces social friction between at-risk youth and law enforcement; and the Citizens’ Police Academy, which immerses citizen attendees in hands on and role-playing exercises related to current issues impacting law enforcement.
Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Service has recently partnered with the University of Alabama Medical Center to develop a first-of-its-kind in Alabama program called Appropriate Care and Treatment In Our Neighborhoods (ACTION). This highly successful initiative responds to the less critical medical needs of the community by placing nurse practitioners, physician assistants, social workers and behavioral health providers alongside traditional rescue personnel to render appropriate response to 911 calls by treating medical needs at the scene, thereby providing more effective and efficient responses and frequently avoiding expensive transports to the emergency room.
Through strategic thinking and bold leadership, we can take steps to improve public safety across the state of Alabama.