When officials in one Alabama town realized local law prevented them from firing two police officers, they dissolved their entire police department instead.
Last Thursday, the small town of Vincent—a hamlet outside Birmingham, Alabama, with a population of just under 2,000—decided to abolish its police department. The department, which employed three officers in total, was disbanded following a June incident that uncovered the exchange of racist text messages sent by at least one Vincent police officer.
In the messages, one officer, who remains unidentified by Vincent officials, asked an unidentified respondent "What do y'all call a pregnant slave?" to which the respondent replied with a string of question marks. "BOGO Buy one, get one free" texted the officer in response.
The messages, which were reported by Al.com on August 2, caused outrage throughout the small community. According to CNN, following the release of the messages, the City Council suspended the police chief and assistant police chief without pay, and the third officer resigned.
However, the City Council was unable to simply fire the officers. According to Vincent city law, police officers cannot be fired unless they receive two formal complaints and a verbal warning. With little other recourse, the Vincent City Council passed a resolution which temporarily dissolved the town's small police department.
This incident isn't the first time a small town has dissolved its police department for bad behavior. In particular, several small towns found to be engaging in illegal "speed trap" schemes have voted to disband their police departments.
In 2014, one Florida town, "only avoided the wrath of the state legislature by disbanding its police force, de-annexing the strip of highway, and accepting the resignation of every public official who held office when the [speed-trap] scandal broke," wrote Reason's CJ Ciaramella. The particularly small town of Wilmer, Alabama, even disincorporated itself entirely after coming under fire for creating a speed trap.
Further, this story is the latest in a long string of incidents where cops have lost their jobs for bigoted text messages. While speech by government officials is generally protected by the First Amendment, it has a few important carve-outs. Speech by government employees is only protected when it is a matter of public concern, like an allegation of corruption, and when the public employee's speech interests are more important than the employer's ability to maintain order.
"There's no bright line here," Popehat's Ken White notes. "But in general, an employee's speech is most likely to be protected if it's on the employee's own time, on the employee's own platform or a platform not run by the employer, involves policy issues rather than personal attacks on people in the government workplace, and the employer can't show evidence of disruption of order or function."
While it is unclear whether the officer's text messages were sent while off-duty using their personal phones, Vincent officials regardless had interest in punishing the officers. In 2021, at least 85 criminal cases were thrown out after at least a dozen of Torrance, California, police officers were found to have exchanged racist, antisemitic, and homophobic text messages.
Even if public officials hadn't been barred by a city statute from firing the two officers, it seems the First Amendment would have provided little protection for the officers' racially charged jokes. In fact, their messages made them a legal liability.
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