MONTGOMERY, Ala. - An Alabama committee passed a bill Tuesday establishing procedures for investigating law enforcement misconduct in Montgomery and will set up a means for victims of police brutality to be compensated, a measure first introduced days after a white police officer was charged in the fatal shooting of a black man in the city last year.
Rep. John Knight, a Montgomery Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said the public has a right to know what steps are taken to investigate officers after incidents of misconduct are reported.
"The more people are informed about what the procedures and the policies are, the less friction you would have because people would know exactly what's going to happen when something takes place," he said.
The legislation does not clarify what those investigation or compensation procedures would be, which gave critics at the House Montgomery County Legislation Committee room to argue that its broad language would leave the city open to multiple compensation lawsuits from people alleging police misconduct.
"The citizens will be paying for claim investigations that might otherwise not be necessary because they might be barred by the statute of limitations," said City Attorney Kim Fehl, who contended that Montgomery already has existing protocols for investigations of officer misconduct. Proponents responded by saying that if the city already has such policies in place then it shouldn't be difficult to make them public.
The bill was first introduced last year after the fatal shooting of 58-year-old Greg Gunn by a Montgomery police officer but records show it never moved out of committee. The killing roiled the city with protests and eventually resulted in murder charges for Officer Aaron Cody Smith.
The swift legal action against Smith has done little to ease tensions after Gunn's death - two judges have already recused themselves from the case and lawyers for the officer are arguing to move the proceedings from the city because they say the intense public scrutiny of the case will influence its outcome.
A hearing last week had a Montgomery County courtroom filled with more than a dozen friends and family members of Gunn, many of whom glared at the back of the officer's head from their wooden pews at the opposite end of the gallery. Smith sat silently and did not look toward them. His lawyer Mickey McDermott has said that Smith received death threats after the shooting.
Ten other states and the city of Baltimore have developed written protocols addressing police use of force incidents, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group that monitors policy.