LEE COUNTY — The Lee County branch of the NAACP held a community and law enforcement town hall discussion on Feb. 27. Citizens gathered at True Deliverance Holiness Church to voice questions and concerns to a panel of top law enforcement officials, including Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones, Auburn Chief of Police Cedric Anderson and Opelika Police Chief Shane Healey.
Lee County NAACP Chair Laticia Smith opened the meeting, saying, “We know that the police are here to protect and serve us, and we are the recipients of that protection and that service. And we know that, for us to have safe communities, for us to have trust and build relationships, we have to come to the table and have these types of discussions.”
The event was the second law enforcement town hall hosted by the Lee County NAACP, with the first held in February of last year following the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, on Jan. 7, 2023.
“We had such good participation last year that we wanted to bring everybody back together again,” Smith said. “We all want to work together, and we know that when we work together we can be successful.”
The sheriff was first on the panel to address the room. “We can’t do it by ourselves — we would be lost without your support,” Jones said. “Everyone’s on the team, so to speak. We just happen to be the public safety component of that team.”
Healey affirmed the sheriff’s call for greater cooperation between law enforcement and community members.
“Imagine on one side of a bridge is law enforcement,” he said. “On the other side of the bridge is the community. You hear that all the time — that we’ve got to bridge that gap. How do we close that gap between us?
“If we, as law enforcement, start doing some things to get ourselves on that bridge and start moving toward our community, does that help our community, our city, our county, our friends and neighbors that live with us?” he asked. “Does that help them have a better, safer community? Yes, it does. If the community gets on that bridge and starts walking toward us, does that help? Yes, it does. Imagine if both entities, the law enforcement and the community, are walking toward each other on that bridge. Are we going to get there twice as fast? Yes. It takes all of us to be able to work together to bring these things to fruition.”
One audience member asked the panel whether their law enforcement agencies support thorough and independent systems for reviewing use of force in encounters with civilians and holding officers accountable.
“Absolutely, yes,” Healey said. “We have a very robust ‘use of force’ review process where any use of force is reviewed by several different people. It begins immediately with the collection of any information and what we call first line supervisors. They’re the first ones to see and review that use of force to make sure that it complies with law and policy.”
He laid out the police department’s internal ‘use of force’ review process.
“That ‘use of force’ packet is sent up through the chain of command, where it’s viewed by the division commanders of whatever division there was a use of force in. Then that division commander gives it to the assistant chief, and depending on the situation, that may ultimately land on my desk. We built this review process after the Ferguson [Missouri] and Cleveland, Ohio, DOJ reports came out many years ago to make sure we were looking at things,” Healey said.
A community member in attendance asked what programs are in place to provide support for crime victims, including keeping them updated about the suspect’s case winds its way through the court system after an arrest.
Jones recommended that victims reach out to the district attorney’s office for information on the local level and to the Alabama Crime Victims’ Compensation Commission for assistance on the state level. He said in some cases, the commission can provide victims of crime with financial assistance or help them access resources like psychiatric counseling.
Another community member asked what measures are taken in the event an officer falsely accuses a citizen or engages in corrupt behavior.
Jones outlined the checks and standards in place to prevent these cases.
“If a law enforcement officer, regardless of agency, not just locally, but anywhere in the state of Alabama, is making false charges or is engaging in activity that is counter to their oath and their mission as far as protecting the public and enforcing the law in a fair and impartial manner, then we’re going to find out,” the sheriff said. “We may not get it the first time, we may not get it the second time, but it’s going to come out. And when it does, they’re not going to be employed enforcing the law in the state of Alabama much longer.
“I can assure you that professional law enforcement, these gentlemen sitting next to me, those deputies out here in the audience tonight and professional law enforcement officers all over the state of Alabama, we do not want individuals amongst our ranks that are not doing the job right and we will not tolerate it,” Jones said.
Another attendee asked what measures the panelists and their departments are taking to address fears or questions young people may have regarding how to act when pulled over by police.
“That’s exactly why we built what we call our ‘Knowledge Is Power’ program,” Healey said. “We teach it out in the community. We’ve done it in several different places throughout the community, but we also teach it to every single kid in driver’s education at Opelika High School. It’s some classroom instruction, and then we actually go outside with them and let them conduct some traffic stops. And we work through, what do you do with your hands? What can you expect that police officer to ask you? What can they do, what can’t they do? So we talk about a lot of those things and give them an opportunity to walk through that. It’s been very impactful. It’s really helped.”