2023 Hillman Prize for Web Journalism
John Archibald, Ashley Remkus, Ramsey Archibald
Investigative Editor: Challen Stephens
Photographer: Joe Songer
Brookside, Alabama, population 1,253, is a rural town 10 miles north of Birmingham. It is 70% white, 21% Black, with a small but growing Hispanic population and a median income well below the state average. Its commercial district consists of one retail store, the Dollar General, and it has no traffic lig.
Since 2011, Brookside had reported very little serious crime — one robbery and no murders. But in 2018, Brookside hired a new police chief, Mike Jones, who sold a vision of how to turn their one-man police department into an intimidating and lucrative force. By 2020, traffic tickets, and criminalizing those who passed through, became the city’s leading industry. The numbers were astounding. Brookside was making more misdemeanor arrests in a year than it had residents.
Brookside police drove unmarked cars, patrolled beyond town limits, stopped cars for simply driving in the left lane, and signed tickets cryptically as Agent JS and Agent JT. Jett’s Towing Co. suspiciously showed up on the side of the road at the same time as police stops. The police went from towing 50 vehicles in a year in 2018 to 789 vehicles in 2020. Those fines funneled back into the force itself.
What’s more, the police department’s Facebook page became a vehicle for public shaming with embarrassing mugshots and derision for those who owed fines and fees — “Turn yourself in. If we have to come get ya, we’ll make you famous!”
“If you put anything on Facebook, he retaliated verbally to you,” said Brookside resident Tammy Price. “He absolutely would embarrass you. If he saw you and he was riding down the street, he would embarrass you in your front yard.” She said she once questioned Jones’ methods in a public meeting, and he pulled up outside her house a little later. He rolled down his window and said, “I’m glad you haven’t needed me lately.”
Archibald broke the story wide open obtaining audit reports showing that the town’s revenues from fines and forfeitures increased 640% in two years and came to supply half of the town’s annual budget and fuel a rapidly growing police force that included a riot control vehicle and K-9 dogs. The reporters gave voice to people fined hundreds or thousands of dollars for minor offenses, people jailed over traffic citations, people left stranded along dark highways as police had their cars towed away. They told of missing paperwork, unlabeled evidence, drivers drained of their life savings for minor traffic violations or sometimes for no crime at all, passers-by inexplicably held in a makeshift jail for days, officers recruited despite criminal records in other towns.
Less than a week after the first story published, the police chief resigned and left town. But that was just the beginning of the fallout. As a result of the reporting, the state opened investigations, lawmakers called for curbs on police abuse, the DOJ sided with drivers shaken down by the town and the town itself suspended traffic court, let half the police force go and asked for outside help.
The Alabama legislature passed a measure that restricts towns across the state from using revenues from fines and fees to supply more than 10% of their budgets. Gov. Kay Ivey signed that legislation into law just two months and 17 days after the story first broke.
The mayor of Brookside — who, until publication, stood firmly by the department and its practices — announced that he would pull police patrols off interstates, reduce its police jurisdiction, and return military equipment to the federal government.
A circuit judge dismissed dozens of cases on appeal from Brookside, calling the evidence “garbage” and citing a lack of credibility in any case where the only witnesses were Brookside police. And the county district attorney dropped another 69 felony drug cases and 22 misdemeanors that originated in Brookside, saying he did not trust the evidence and did not want to be associated with a “rogue police force.”
As it turned out, the sheriff, district attorney and public defenders, even the attorney general of Alabama, had already heard complaints about growing police abuses long before Archibald’s reporting. They knew but neither said nor did anything to stop it.
Archibald, working with investigative reporter Ashley Remkus, data reporter Ramsey Archibald and editor Challen Stephens published dozens of follow-up stories throughout 2022. This series changed people’s lives, not just in Brookside but across Alabama. It is another startling example of how the justice system fails the public when police become armed debt collectors.
John Archibald is Pulitzer-winning columnist and award-winning podcaster. He is the author of “Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution.”
Ashley Remkus is the local investigative editor and an investigative reporter for AL.com. In 2021 she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting and a collaboration that was nominated for a national Emmy award.
Ramsey Archibald is a data reporter, graphics maker and more for AL.com in Birmingham, Alabama. His work has won multiple state journalism awards.