City leaders blasted the state of the criminal justice system for contributing to a wave of violence in Mobile that culminated this weekend in multiple shootings and three deaths.
“In my opinion, the criminal justice system is broken,” Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said during a news conference Monday. The event was also attended by the city’s new police chief, Paul Prine, and the past two police chiefs who have different roles within the administration – Chief of Staff James Barber and Executive Director of Public Safety Lawrence Battiste.
“We cannot arrest our way out of the problem,” said Prine. “We need help. We need help from the prosecutor’s office and the judicial system.”
He added, “To say it’s broken is an understatement.”
The concerns expressed by Stimpon, Prine and others focused on a backlog of court cases awaiting jury trials in Mobile County. Some of those cases were stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but city officials say that 142 murder cases are awaiting a grand jury and 193 murder cases are awaiting a jury trial.
“We have 345 untried murder cases,” Stimpson said. “Many of these people are walking the streets today. The lack of speedy trails emboldens criminals.”
Some criticism seemed directed at Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office, and at the Mobile County judicial circuit. An prosecutor with Rich’s office met with Mobile city officials on Monday to discuss the status of the backlogged cases. A call and an email to Rich’s office were not returned late Monday. Presiding Judge Michael Youngpeter was also unavailable for comment.
The frustrations come after a violent weekend in Alabama’s Port City that started Friday and continued through Sunday at a vigil that was connected to a killing two days earlier.
Prine, himself, was at the vigil where the shooting occurred.
“The chief was there,” Stimpson said. “We had an abundance of officers there. But when there is retaliatory action, it’s hard to thwart that crime.”
More than a dozen police reports of shootings occurred from Friday to Sunday.
High-profile incidents include:
- Two men were shot and killed around 1:35 p.m. Friday at Cottage Hill and Azalea roads in Mobile.
- A woman suffered a non-life-threatening gunshot wound to the back around 1 a.m. on Saturday at The Grounds, 951 Cody Road South. The shooting occurred as a crowd was leaving concert that was held at the fairground’s auditorium. As the crowd fled following the gunshot, two other women were injured. They were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.
- Gunfire erupted during a candlelight vigil for the victims of Friday’s shooting around 7:30 p.m. at Cottage Hill and Azalea roads. No injuries were reported, but Chief of Staff James Barber said on Monday that he was surprised no one was killed because “70 rounds were fired in the parking lot.” He added, “How it didn’t result in more injuries and death than what occurred is pretty remarkable to me.” No one has been arrested in connection for the shooting.
Focusing on recidivists
The latest crime wave comes after Mobile set a new one-year record for homicides in 2021, and as cities around the U.S. grapple with rising gun-related violence.
Stimpson blamed it mostly on recidivism and an inability of the legal system to tackle a growing backlog of murder cases. He said if “known recidivist offenders” are incarcerated, “you will see a reduction in crime.”
“We can focus on what we can do to work closely with neighborhoods, what we can do education-wise and what support organizations can do in helping in the rehabilitation process,” he said. “None of that will make any difference if we can’t get those violent recidivist offenders off the streets.”
He said the “longer we wait” to push through the backlog of cases, “more people are going to get hurt.”
But Stimpson and Prine said the general public should not be afraid.
Prine said the weekend shootings were not random acts of violence.
“Most of these perpetrators know who their intended targets are,” said Prine, acknowledging that gang-related violence is a likely culprit. “The issue is the shooting into the public creates a hazard for innocent bystanders.”
He added, “What I would like the public to know is that they are not the target.”
Stimpson added, “For the ordinary citizen who is driving up and down the streets of Mobile and walking in and out of the grocery store, there really is nothing to worry about. But know we are doing everything we can to make sure they are safe and that will happen as soon as we start seeing some of these criminals put away.”
Stimpson’s administration is backing some solutions, although the timing of a key measure is months away from happening.
Aniah’s Law, a constitutional amendment backed by the Alabama Legislature last year, will not be possible until voters get to weigh in on it during the November election. Aniah’s law, if adopted by voters, allows judges to deny bail for violent criminal offenders.
Barber said the effects of the law are needed sooner than later this year. He blamed the outdated nature of the state’s 1901 Constitution for requiring a constitutional amendment before law enforcement is allowed a tool to assist in battling the violent crime.
“We are dealing with 21st century threats with a 1901 Constitution,” he said, referring to the requirement for a constitutional amendment to get the measure approved. “They did not have high capacity weapons in 1901.”
Stimpson also said he is pushing the Alabama State Supreme Court to increase funding for the Mobile judicial circuit so that an additional circuit judge is budgeted.
“The funding is very critical to this,” he said.
A special court to assist authorities in speeding up the judicial backlog has since been set up, Barber said. Stimpson said he is working with Chief Justice Tom Parker and Youngpeter to focus on catching up with criminal trials involving violent offenders.
The city is also planning to increase police officer pay in the coming year in an effort to reverse a trend of declining personnel. According to Barber, the “optimal” workforce would include 650 officers. The city currently has 413 officers employed, after losing 111 police officers over the past 12 months.
“That shows the gravity of what we’re working with,” said Barber. “The ones who are working are tired, they are stressed. It’s not a problem unique to Mobile, and we are seeing that across the country.”
Mobile police, in the coming months, is also rolling out its crime-fighting initiative called “Operation Echo Stop” that focuses on targeting gun violence before it occurs. A key component of that effort is the installation of cameras as part of “ShotSpotter,” a gunshot detection technology.
The Mobile City Council is expected to approve an approximately $525,000 expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act funds to purchase the camera and technology equipment for ShotSpotter.
“It, alone, will not address the concerns we are bringing to the table today,” said Battiste. “ShotSpotter is a component to help identify and protect whenever these crimes occur.”
This story was updated at 11:27 a.m. on March 22, 2022, to note that no one has been arrested in connection to a shooting Sunday at a vigil at Azalea and Cottage Hill roads.