How Brookside, Ala. became synonymous with policing run amok and what Alabama is doing about it.
“A black hole.” That’s what Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr called Brookside, Ala. (pop. 1,253), in the story that exposed it as likely the worst speed trap in America.
“Garbage.” That was the word Jefferson County Circuit Judge Shanta Owens used to describe the credibility of Brookside police officers before dismissing a cluster of traffic cases in which they were the sole witnesses.
Brookside’s reputation as a national poster child for policing for profit is well earned. In 2022, AL.com broke the story of how the city’s aggressive policing tactics, which included the use of unmarked vehicles and officers who operated well outside of the city’s police jurisdiction and used pseudonyms to make it impossible for motorists to identify who ticketed them, resulted in a 640% increase in revenue from fines and forfeitures between 2018 and 2020. Arrests skyrocketed during those years, and the city became notorious for the long lines and abusive practices at its municipal court. By 2020, fines and forfeitures comprised 49% of the municipal budget.
Meanwhile, hundreds of motorists reported being ticketed on made-up charges like driving in the left lane, which is not illegal in Alabama. Some of the abusive policing was especially harmful to Black motorists. People were even stranded on the side of the road after Brookside police had their vehicles towed by Jett’s Towing, a small company that made a fortune on its dealings with the town. Together with the city, Jett’s faces a lawsuit alleging RICO (racketeering) and other violations.
The kinds of abusive policing practices uncovered in Brookside bubble to the surface on a regular basis in Alabama. In 2017, the south Alabama hamlet of Castleberry, (pop. 550) made headlines after it quintupled its police force, opened a municipal court, equipped its new hires with military-style fatigues and unmarked cars, and began aggressively policing the road into and out of town. Between fines, fees, forfeitures, and towing fees, Castleberry doubled its revenue in a single year and soon found itself facing litigation alleging illegal policing practices and civil rights violations. A few years before that, the Shelby County town of Harpersville made national headlines for running a debtor’s prison, with police and a private probation company collaborating to squeeze money out of poor motorists or jail them when they could not pay.
As far back as 1975, the police department of Fruithurst, (pop. 250), a notorious speed trap on the Georgia-Alabama border, met its maker at the hands of then-Attorney General Bill Baxley, who took the rare step of opening an office in the town and offering to defend drivers ticketed by Fruithurst police. A week after Baxley’s impromptu office opened, Fruithurst disbanded its police department.
Alabama’s current attorney general has not seen fit to comment on the situation in Brookside, but Baxley is still at it: Along with legendary Jefferson County civil rights lawyer Bill Dawson, he is counsel on one of more than a dozen lawsuits filed against the tiny town since AL.com began its groundbreaking coverage.
Aggressive reporting on Brookside netted positive results for all Alabamians, not just those named in lawsuits. In 2022, amid bipartisan calls for accountability and reform, state lawmakers swiftly passed two pieces of legislation aimed at deterring predatory police practices. One caps at 10% the percent of a municipality’s revenue that can come from traffic fines. The other requires municipalities to provide information about revenue from tickets, along with data about their budgets and certain expenditures, to a statewide database.
Brookside’s former police chief, Mike Jones, resigned shortly after AL.com’s stories began rolling in. He kept his badge though – and in May 2022 he was arrested in Covington County for impersonating a police officer after he flashed his badge during a traffic stop where a deputy claims he was going 78 mph in a 55 mph zone.
Just days before Jones’ arrest, another former Brookside police officer was arrested on charges of first degree rape. And Officer Mike Savelle, Jones’ second-in-command, had been arrested in Hoover, Ala. on charges of public intoxication and harassment three years earlier. Savelle retained his position in Brookside despite the charges, only resigning after the 2022 stories of abusive policing broke.
“I can’t stand a dirty cop,” Covington County Sheriff Turman told AL.com. “I can stand a thief better than a dirty cop. All they do is take people’s rights. I can’t stand them.”