As speeders slow down, Castleberry Police Department faces an uncertain future

Just moments after residents and elected officials of Castleberry finished the pledge of allegiance at the start of a recent special town hall meeting, softly uttering in unison "liberty and justice for all," the town's mayor declared that the police department may have to close before the end of the year.

"The police department is not sustaining itself," said Mayor Henry Kirksey, who has been in office for around one year. "One thing he [Police Chief Troy Stalley] told me was that it was pretty easy to write 10-20 tickets a day but once the publicity come out in the newspaper he told me sometimes it's hard to get five a day."

In late October AL.com published an article detailing some of the tactics employed by Castleberry's police department while under the stewardship of former Police Chief Tracy Hawsey and former Mayor J.B. Jackson. Plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit accuse the town and Hawsey of using a speed trap to pull over out-of-town drivers, take their money and belongings on the basis that they were from the proceeds of drug crime. The police department would also tow the cars of those drivers, demanding a $500 fee for them to be released. Drugs and money confiscated from drivers has not been accounted for, according to the lead attorney on the lawsuit Richard Nix. Current Police Chief Stalley is also implicated in the lawsuit.

The town of around 550 people currently has three full time and one part-time police officers, including a couple of dispatchers. It also has five vehicles.The mayor told the 20 or so Castleberry residents in the room at the meeting that the officers were paid comparatively well for law enforcement officers in the area.

While the mayor and police chief both admitted that drivers coming into the town were now obeying the speed limits because of AL.com's article, the lack of income has compounded the town's financial issues and caused a divide between those that don't believe the town needs a police department and those that wish to see it continue.

"We're living in times where you can't go to church and feel safe, go shopping and feel safe, and now we're definitely not going to feel safe without police in this town," said Lulu Palmer, a Castleberry town council member. "I pay taxes and I want to have police protection in the town of Castleberry."

In response, the mayor said that the Conecuh County Sheriff would still respond to emergency calls from residents in Castleberry. "We pay our taxes and they will come," he said.

His comments started a discussion in the room that was roughly divided along racial lines about who the sheriff actually responds too. One white woman in attendance said that the sheriff had arrived at her house on two occasions within 15 minutes. Others, mainly black residents in the small meeting room, disagreed. "you must be one of the chosen ones," shouted Mary Moncrease, a black woman that lives approximately two miles outside of the city limits.

Some attendees at the meeting suggested that residents in fear should buy a gun.

The town has approximately $20,000 in unpaid bills, according to the mayor, and a six-figure debt that was inherited from the past regime, according residents of the town. The mayor also indicated that the debt was nearly insurmountable. "We cannot go on like this and if y'all want to bankrupt the city by continuing to have a police department that's fine by me." 

"This city is a business and we need to run it like that," the mayor added. When running for office, the mayor had told residents he would not scrap the police department, but added in the meeting that he also said that the town would not "keep things it can't afford."

Under the previous Mayor J.B. Jackson, Castleberry sought to raise revenues by bringing in a court system, which included hiring a judge and prosecutor. Castleberry criminal cases that had previously been handled in the larger town of Evergreen were often thrown out due to lack of resources and time, meaning little to no income for Castleberry. Having a court system meant additional revenue that helped sustain the police department and the small court system.

At one time, Castleberry's police department averaged 90.9 police officers per 10,000 people. That's more than five times the national average per capita.

Police Chief Stalley also addressed the residents in the meeting hall, explaining that the police department was not self-sustaining, but added that any notion it was to blame for the town's dire financial predicament was "false" and that the town was "not a speed trap." He also said that the town needed a larger than normal police department because the sheriff's department was not always a reliable as a backup since its officers might be 30 minutes away.

After a one hour and 45 minute break, in which the mayor and council members discussed the mayors relationship with Police Chief Stalley and what to do about the police department, a motion was tabled to keep the police department running on a limited basis. The motion passed 3-2, although there was no immediate explanation about what limited basis would mean.

During a discussion outside of the town hall after the meeting was abruptly adjourned by a clearly disappointed mayor, council member Chris Godwin explained that a limited basis would probably mean "month to month or week to week until the money runs out."

In response, Moncrease, one of the more outspoken individuals at the meeting said "the police department has been financial able to support itself and all of a sudden we are unable to do it anymore," she said. "They say the county gonna come, but we all know they ain't gonna come."

While it's currently unclear what will become of the Castleberry's police department or the town's debt, council member Godwin told AL.com that he was not optimistic about its future. 

"They want to try and see if things pick up, give it until January 1st," he said. "We so far in the hole there's no way to come out."

Update: Mayor Kirksey confirmed in follow up conversation with AL.com on Dec. 7 that one proposal is to reduce the police department to one full-time officer and one part-time, but that the possibility that the entire department may need to close was still a reality.