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Ala. public safety director defends officers in viral ‘homeless quilt’ photo

  • By We Heart Leos News
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John Sharp
Alabama Media Group

MOBILE, Ala. — Mobile’s executive director of public safety defended on Tuesday the two city police officers who were photographed in an “insensitive” viral social media post in which they posed next to what one of them called a “homeless quilt.”

James Barber, who oversees the police and fire departments and is a former police chief himself, said that Officers Preston McGraw and Alexandre Oliver are “good officers” who showed “bad judgment.”

“It was taken out of humor but, again, it was in bad taste and certainly offensive to a lot of people in making light of homeless situations,” Barber said to AL.com, referring to the picture of McGraw and Oliver standing next to confiscated cardboard signs from people who allegedly were asking for handouts.

The signs were taped together and contained messages for help. McGraw and Oliver were photographed standing next to the “quilt” inside the Mobile Police Department. The image was posted to social media with the text, “Wanna wish everybody in the 4th precinct a Merry Christmas, especially our captain. Hope you enjoy our homeless quilt! Sincerely, Panhandler patrol.”

Barber said, “It shouldn’t overshadow the incredible work that Mobile police do every day. I certainly hate the fact it’s reflected unfavorably on the Police Department because I do know the incredible work they do in keeping citizens safe.”

Barber’s comments come one day after Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste, long an advocate for homeless people, apologized for the actions of the two officers and for the “insensitive gesture,” which has been shared all over social media.

Charlette Solis, spokeswoman with the Mobile Police Department, said an administrative investigation is underway. The results could lead to determining what kind of corrective action is needed, she said. Both officers remain on active duty while the investigation is underway.

“We will take corrective action,” Barber said.

Barber defended the department and police, in general, by citing what has been a difficult year for officer safety in Alabama. As of Monday, Alabama has experienced six law enforcement shooting deaths while in the line of duty during 2019, including the Jan. 20 killing of Mobile Police Officer Sean Tuder.

Overall, there have been seven law enforcement officers in Alabama who were killed while working in the line of duty. Only three states with much larger populations – California, New York and Texas – have had more during the past year.

“We have a Mobile Police Department that people should be proud of,” said Barber. “Don’t let one bad judgement call overshadow that. I guess the plane that lands won’t be as spectacular as the one that crashes.”

Asked if he thought the picture could lead to a social media policy change, Barber said, “I think all of us, and certainly the Police Department and citizens as well, have to be mindful of how we post on social media. It can be misinterpreted and go viral and cause a great deal of concern. But it should never outweigh the really good nature of these two officers and that they do their job every day.”

He said the department’s officers undergo sensitivity, implied bias and cultural diversity training. Barber served as Mobile’s police chief from 2013-2017, when he was appointed to his current position.

Barber didn’t specifically mention the incident during his public remarks at Tuesday’s council meeting. But he did continue to praise his department, as a whole, during the recognition of the Mobile Police Department’s “Officer of the Month.”

“It’s fitting that we recognize the incredible work done that often times goes unnoticed,” said Barber, acknowledging that police often face an “overdose of criticism.”

Mobile City Council President Levon Manzie said he felt it was “unfortunate” that a small number of officers or actions can harm the profession. “We have fine first responders here in the city of Mobile,” he said.

Afterward, Manzie told AL.com that he agreed with Battiste’s position.

“I agree with the leadership of the Police Department," Manzie said. “I am happy they will be taking corrective measures internally.”