Public Police Perception Following Huntsville Officers’ Firings, Reinstatements

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - The Huntsville City Council voted to reinstate officers P. J. Lee and Brett Russell against the wishes and recommendations of interim police chief Lewis Morris, following very public and seemingly violent video evidence of both officers misusing force while on duty.

Officers Lee and Russell were retained to the force stipulating a 30-day unpaid suspension, additional training and remedial courses in the use of force.

District 5 Huntsville City Councilman Will Culver
(PHOTO: David Wood, WHNT)

While the council vote to retain officer Brett Russell was unanimous last Thursday, not all members believed P. J. Lee deserved a second chance during his termination appeal hearing two weeks prior.

Councilman Will Culver represents Huntsville's District Five and is also a former policeman. He is one of two members who voted to uphold Lee's termination in accordance with police chief Morris' recommendations.

"It saddens me that our local law enforcement would respond in that manner," Culver said Monday. "When I think about a police officer, I think about an officer and a gentleman or gentlewoman and that is not what I saw in those videos."

Culver said he believes dashboard cameras are one of the best investments city government has made in regard to law enforcement. He says the video evidence of the excessive use of force by officers Lee and Russell was in no way deceptive and that transparency is an asset to the police department as well as the community.

"I think we have a venerated Chief of Police, his administration made, I thought a very good decision but since my colleagues elected to keep Officer Lee, it was a no-brainer we must also keep Officer Russell."

While Culver says the votes set the stage for similar infractions in the future, he also says city council's decisions also set the stage for a potentially misguided public. Culver says more important than the relationship between the council and the police department is public perception fueled by telling police video.

"The public, I'm sure feels that now law enforcement has almost a carte blanche privilege to violate their rights."

Councilman Culver says the incidents involving officers Lee and Russell are game changers.

"This is where we draw the line in the sand. This kind of behavior in the future cannot be tolerated."

Councilman Will Culver says he believes there needs to be increased discussion and training regarding verbal judo, anger management and non-violent conflict resolution in the future. 

The Brett Russell hearing official facts and findings reveal Amanda Carmean was the arresting officer of Gary Wayne Hopkins the night of December 23, 2011 and that the detained was placed in the back of Carmean's patrol car. The findings state officer Russell along with a 17-year-old participating in the department's Ranger Corp were on the scene to assist officer Carmean with a "combative" Hopkins.

The official findings document says as officers Carmean and Russell were preparing to apply leg restraints to Hopkins, Carmean, having "previous experience and knowledge of Mr. Hopkins' violent tendencies" and anticipating a struggle with the man told officer Russell, "go ahead, Russell."  Audio from the dash camera video also records Carmean saying to Russell, "you can say he hit me," referring to Hopkins.

In addition to the initial issues and charges that officer Carmean did not properly secure Hopkins by belting him in her patrol car, left Hopkins "unattended" and did not transport him from the arrest scene in a timely manner, Carmean can be seen and heard in the recording shining her flashlight on Mr. Hopkins and using derogatory language toward him.

"There was some disciplinary action taken against officer Carmean," revealed Will Culver, "I'm not at liberty to say what that action was but with both cases there was action taken with other police officers involved as well."

Culver says the excessive use of force displayed by officers Lee and Russell set a precedent for future and similar police infractions.

"I think the dashcam is a very important tool, it's one of the best investments we have made in city government when it relates to law enforcement," Culver said. "The proof is in the pudding and those video are not deceptive."

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