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Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds To Their Own Wallets?

The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won't misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back.

Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin infamously pocketed $750,000 in jail food funds and subsequently bought a $740,000 beach house.
Etowah County Sheriff's Office

Will Alabama Sheriffs Finally Stop Diverting Jail Food Funds To Their Own Wallets?

The governor is making sheriffs sign an oath promising they won't misuse funds meant to feed jail prisoners. But some sheriffs are already pushing back.

After the revelation that several Alabama sheriffs were pocketing funds meant for feeding people in jail, Governor Kay Ivey asked every sheriff in the state to sign an “oath” pledging that the state funds would be used only for the facilitation of feeding prisoners. But it may not go far enough to keep sheriffs from skimping on prisoners’ meals.

Beginning on Sept. 1, the form sheriffs must submit to receive state money for jail food funds (typically $1.75 per inmate per day) was updated to include an oath stating that the money will be “used only for the appropriated purpose: ‘food for prisoners in the county jail.’” The affidavit is being treated as a legal document and “any evidence of misappropriation, making a false official statement, or use of office for personal gain, could be referred for criminal prosecution,” Ivey’s spokesperson Daniel Sparkman told The Appeal.

While sheriffs have skimmed from the jail food fund, prisoners across the state have reported their food is inadequate, spoiled, and contaminated with insect or rodent droppings, according to a lawsuit filed in January by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. In the Etowah County jail, where the “beach house sheriff” presides, prisoners were being served rotten lettuce, beans, and noodles that one man called “the worst food I’ve ever had in my life,” revealed. This wasn’t unique to Etowah County, however: Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett was briefly jailed in 2009 after he kept $212,000 from the food fund while he served prisoners corndogs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for several weeks. Many sheriffs have refused to disclose whether they took food funds or what they did with them.

But the enforcement of this oath has limitations. Any evidence would be found during an audit, which only occurs every three to four years, according to state audit officials. Additionally, the affidavit doesn’t cover the federal, county, or municipal funds that sheriffs may receive to feed their prisoners.

And other arms of government are sending a different message. Shortly after sheriffs began signing the oath in September, a state ethics commission cleared Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who raked in roughly $750,000 from jail food funds and infamously bought a $740,000 beach house.

Meanwhile, the oath does not resolve an underlying dispute over what the law actually allows sheriffs to do with excess jail food funds.

The Depression-era law that sheriffs say gives them the right to pocket these funds may have made sense at the time; sheriffs’ homes were usually connected to the jails and they used their home kitchens to feed prisoners. But its relevance has been long debated since then. A 2008 ruling by then-Attorney General Troy King said sheriffs had a right to keep excess funds. But in 2011, his successor, Luther Strange, wrote in an opinion that sheriffs could not use the funds for “any purpose other than future expenses in feeding prisoners.” After reviewing the practice, Ivey has sided with Strange.

Aaron Littman, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, cheered Ivey’s oath and said it is another useful mechanism to hold sheriffs accountable for how they use the funds. “This affidavit confirms they are not violating the law by misappropriating public funds; it doesn’t reflect a change in what they’re able to do,” he told The Appeal. It was unlawful to take the funds before the change in the affidavit, and it remains unlawful now.”

As of Sept. 25, 13 sheriffs had submitted the signed affidavits to the comptroller’s office. This isn’t an indication of support for the policy, however, since they can send them in whenever they want as long as it’s by the end of each fiscal year.

But some sheriffs are already pushing back against the oath. The Alabama Sheriffs Association has maintained the position that pocketing the funds is still within the law and only the legislature has the ability to change that. Chilton County Sheriff John Shearon, who signed the oath, told The Appeal that there’s “a lot of gray area” surrounding the ability to keep funds, and although he saw the potential for questionable practices, he thought the state should have simply waited to pass legislation. “Everything is upside down, we really have no clue,” he said. “I think it probably could have been done a little bit different, it should have been done next year in the legislature, it should have been done in more of a controlled manner.”

He would not say whether he had kept excess food funds from his 179-bed jail. He has also refused to give the Southern Center for Human Rights access to records showing how he had used the funds, telling a paralegal he did not believe they are “subject to disclosure under state law,” according to the lawsuit. Shearon said he wanted to hand over the responsibility of feeding prisoners to someone else, calling it “nothing but a headache.”

Robert Timmons, the sheriffs association director, also told that Ivey didn’t have the authority to prevent sheriffs from keeping the money. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal.

Last legislative session, bipartisan efforts to change the law or add amendments that would forbid the practice in designated counties stalled. When the legislature reconvenes in March, Alabama Appleseed will push a bill that would end the practice statewide.

We are supporting legislative efforts not because we think it’s necessary, because we think the law is clear and to once and for all put this issue to rest,” said executive director Frank Knaack. “Some sheriffs continue to think that the law seems to not apply to them.”

Baltimore's Gun Offender Registry Is A Misfire

Established to track anyone convicted of a gun-related offense, the registry has proved to be both racist and ineffective in reducing gun violence.

An aerial view of the Baltimore City skyline
Photo Illustration by Anagraph/Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty

Baltimore's Gun Offender Registry Is A Misfire

Established to track anyone convicted of a gun-related offense, the registry has proved to be both racist and ineffective in reducing gun violence.

In October 2007, then Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon established a gun offender registry to help combat violence. “I want to make Baltimore the toughest place in the country on gun crimes,” Dixon said when the registry was signed into law.

But over a decade after it was created, the registry has proved to be ineffective in reducing gun violence, extremely punitive, racist, and perhaps even unconstitutional.

The Baltimore registry was modeled on a similar database created by New York City in 2006, the first in the country. It works like this: Anyone convicted of at least one gun-related offense—including nonviolent misdemeanors—in Baltimore’s Circuit or District Court is required to register their name and address with the city’s police department. Then, they must check in with the police every six months for three years and update the required information as needed.  

Those sentenced to prison on a gun-related offense have 48 hours upon release to register. Failure to comply with these conditions can result in arrest and prosecution, with possible punishment of a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Notifications about gun offenders are made to community leaders and to police districts. The registry is also accessible to the public on Baltimore’s Open Data website, displaying the name, address and date of birth of the registrant.

In 2012, when I was a patrol officer in the Baltimore Police Department’s Northern District, I was provided with a list of names and addresses of registrants who resided on my patrol post. My sergeant instructed me to verify a registrant’s place of residence and document the results in writing. The results were then forwarded to the Gun Offender Monitoring Unit. If I located the individual on the list, I noted the address was current. If I received no answer or someone at the residence told me the individual didn’t live there, a detective from the monitoring unit would then attempt to locate the person. If the registered individual could not be located, the detective would then write an arrest warrant for failure to comply, which is a misdemeanor. Because the punishment can be up to a year in jail, a jury trial could be requested.  The registry was also used to elicit information about violent crimes like armed robberies, nonfatal shootings and homicides. I performed “knock and talks” to question registrants about such crimes, but I never obtained any useful information.

In April 2011, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Alfred Nance ruled that the gun offender registry was “unconstitutionally vague and awfully broad” when he dismissed criminal charges of “failure to register” against Adrian Phillips. In June 2010, Phillips was hit with this charge after detectives stated that his address could not be verified and that he failed to report to the gun offender monitoring unit office. Phillips insisted that he was unable to go to the office because of an injury and that he was living with his grandmother, and provided her address. When police couldn’t find him there, Phillips was charged with failure to register. His attorney argued that the registry creates “sentencing enhancements on a state law that punishes people who live in the City.”

In March 2013, however, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the registry. There have been similar constitutional challenges to gun registries in New York and Chicago, but courts there have also ruled in their favor.

But some cities are rejecting gun offender registries. In November 2017, the City Council in Wilmington, Delaware, voted against creating a registry. “Our streets are saturated with these lethal firearms,” said Council Member Nnamdi Chukwuocha. But the gun registry, he said, would simply put “more punitive measures in place for individuals who need support.”

In Baltimore, meanwhile, there are growing concerns about that African Americans are disproportionately represented on the registry.  Baltimore’s population is 63 percent African American yet African Americans comprise approximately 96 percent of the registry.

The registry also has not been an effective tool in reducing violence in Baltimore. According to recently released statistics from the FBI, Baltimore had the nation’s second-highest murder rate in 2017 for cities with populations greater than 100,000. (For much of 2018 it appeared that murder could be in decline in Baltimore, but a recent spike in killings may change that.) A study of Baltimore homicides in 2017 revealed that 88 percent of the victims had been killed by a firearm.

Gun registries are reflective of gun control measures generally which have racially disparate outcomes. According to one Department of Justice study, weapons arrest rates are five times greater for African Americans than for whites. And gun arrests were at the heart of the Baltimore Police’s corrupt and federally indicted Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF); indeed, in August GTTF victim Devon Harrod filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department for a 2015 incident in which officers from the unit planted a gun near him and then coerced him into falsely confessing that the weapon was his. “Many of the already existing instances of racial profiling and overpolicing that contribute to mass incarceration come from gun control measures,” Alex Gourevitch, a professor of political science at Brown University, said in 2015. “If we really care about the condition of people living in poor Black communities, the issue isn’t just the destruction of physical lives but how low the quality of life is. The best thing would be to reduce the number of things we call crimes and instead look to things like social and economic policy.”

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Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

An activist confronting a Columbus police officer outside the governor's mansion in Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, in April 2017.
Katie Forbes

Suit Filed by Strip Club Workers in Columbus Sheds Light on Troubled Vice Squad

The women, who were arrested alongside Stormy Daniels in July, allege that they were smeared by arresting officers, but they’re just the latest to raise concerns.

At the Sirens strip club in Columbus one night in July, a new lawsuit alleges, members of the Columbus Division of Police vice squad paid $75 each for “V.I.P. access” to adult entertainer Stormy Daniels. As the undercover officers downed $129 in alcoholic drinks, they commented on the bodies of their cocktail servers: “You have the tits,” one officer said to a cocktail waitress, “and she has the ass.”

The vice officers then made their way to the V.I.P. area for Daniels’s performance. Later, one would claim Daniels “put both hands on officers [sic] buttocks, both hands on officers [sic] breast, then put her breast in officers [sic] face” as cause for arresting her, along with two other women working at the club. While one of the officers sent around an email announcing they had Daniels in jail, the suit continues, another was busy shutting down his alleged pseudonymous Facebook account, deleting posts like “Cops for Trump Pence Make America Great Again.”

These allegations appear in a civil rights lawsuit filed this week against officers in the Columbus Division of Police (CPD) vice squad. In the suit, two women arrested that night at Sirens say officers falsified evidence and misled the public about the women’s alleged involvement in prostitution and human trafficking. The vice squad raid on Sirens was widely considered political payback for Daniels’s allegations that she had an affair with President Trump and was paid to cover it up.

Miranda Panda, a cocktail waitress, and Brittany Walters, a dancer, brought the suit against CPD vice officers. They say officers Shana Keckley, Whitney Lancaster, Mary Praither, Steven Rosser, along with one other unknown officer, arrested them without probable cause, an argument later supported by the city attorney, who said officers failed to allege necessary facts about the women’s conduct. After the arrests, their suit says, CPD “falsely insinuated” to the media that Panda and Walters were involved in “prostitution, human trafficking, or vice related violations.”

The suit comes at a critical time for the department. Since Sept. 6, vice unit operations have been put on “pause” as the department launched an internal review. Three weeks later, the department called in an FBI public corruption task force to investigate the unit, noting that “recent high profile incidents have brought forward a variety of allegations,” including Daniels’s arrest and the shooting of sex worker Donna Dalton by Officer Andrew Mitchell in August. At the time he shot and killed Dalton, Mitchell was under criminal investigation. He had also already made 80 prostitution-related arrests in 2018, overwhelmingly of women.

Columbus Police spokesperson Denise Alex-Bouzounis told The Appeal that the FBI investigation led the department to relieve Mitchell of duty, confiscating his badge and gun. FBI spokesperson Todd Lindgren confirmed to The Appeal that CPD has referred the investigation to them, but would not offer further information because “the matter is ongoing.”

The officers’ plans to target Sirens and Daniels, the suit claims, are evidenced in part by pro-Trump Facebook posts allegedly written by Officer Rosser, since deleted. (Rosser, in a previous incident, was found to have entrapped employees of a Columbus bar into serving alcohol to minors.) The suit cites internal emails, including a celebratory email from Officer Keckley, who forwarded the complaints related to the three arrests to a CPD lieutenant, with the comment “LT You’re Welcome!!!!! I work Vice now !! : D It was Me, Rosser, Lancaster, and Praiter [sic]; Please Please Don’t post my name on Face Book [sic] !! : D Thank me in person later.”

The women also allege that officers falsified their arrest reports so they could be charged with violating a law against touching strip club patrons while nude or seminude. Officer Keckley reported in a criminal complaint that Panda was nude or seminude, but in the suit, Panda says she wore “a large bra, which covered all of her nipples and most of her breasts; underwear; leggings; and a high-waisted skirt.” Officer Praither, the suit states, misrepresented her conduct with Walters, who was dancing when Praither reported Walters put her face between the officer’s breasts, because “it would have been physically impossible for Ms. Walters to bend down far enough” from the stage.

The women say in the suit that they were publicly shamed after CPD told the media that the arrests at Sirens were because of prostitution and human trafficking. Someone wrote “whore” on Panda’s door, and Walters was outed to her family, who did not know she was a dancer until news reports.

An FBI spokesperson would not comment on whether they were investigating these arrests, which dancers say have had a lasting impact on their lives. Alyson, a dancer who has worked at the club, told The Appeal that since the arrests, some dancers have left the club for fear of getting police citations. “You don’t know what you could get cited for, so it just kind of makes everyone nervous.”

The new allegations against the vice unit didn’t surprise Tynan Krakoff, a lead organizer with Showing Up for Racial Justice Columbus. Krakoff said the lawsuit is “part of a larger pattern of police abuse and corruption,” noting that there were roughly two dozen active lawsuits as of late 2017 against CPD. “It’s not about individual ‘bad apples,’” Krakoff said.

Such incidents—the shooting of Donna Dalton, the arrests at Sirens—“have rightfully drawn scrutiny to our vice section,” Deputy Chief Timothy Becker said on Sept. 6 during the announcement of the internal review. Vice officers, he went on, investigate “salacious activities that are relatively minor in terms of criminal penalties, yet very cancerous to our communities,” which require officers who have made “good choices” to “associate with individuals who are making poor decisions.” Yet after the arrests at Sirens, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein instructed police to cease such undercover enforcement of the “no touching” law. In the case of Daniels, Panda, and Walters, all charges were dropped.

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