Author(s): John Archibald, Ashley Remkus and Ramsey Archibald
In a series of in-depth investigative reports and follow-ups, journalists at AL.com exposed how police in a small town near Birmingham, Ala., abused their powers, preying on the poor to line town coffers with revenue generated from fines for minor traffic violations and misdemeanor offenses.
The work, led by investigative reporter John Archibald, has had a far-reaching impact on policing in small towns across Alabama. State lawmakers passed legislation to curb police abuses and the reporting drew attention from the U.S. Department of Justice, which sided with drivers who were shaken down by the town’s overzealous police force.
The AL.com team focused its investigation on Brookside, Ala., based on data analysis that identified the small town as the worst traffic ticket trap in the state. The team made that determination by collecting data on federal overtime grants, state revenue records, town budgets and town court records. The team triangulated and assigned all towns a three-pronged speed trap score. The investigation into policing tactics in Brookside, located on Interstate 22 just north of Birmingham, followed.
Archibald obtained Brookside’s audit reports. That allowed him to break the story showing that the town’s revenues from fines and forfeitures had increased 640 percent over a two-year period and had come to account for nearly half of the town’s annual revenue. The town used the increased revenue to increase the size of the police force. The reporting also found that Brookside police were making more misdemeanor arrests in a year than there were residents of the town.
AL.com reported its findings in a series of lengthy investigative stories published periodically over several months. The larger stories included key developments and new findings. Between the larger pieces, AL.com published stories on related breaking news developments tied to the investigation, as well as more investigative reports.
The reporting 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 and officers recruited despite troubled pasts.
The team wove together personal stories, expert voices, public records and data. The investigation showed that Brookside is the poster child for policing for profit.
In an act of public service, AL.com warned drivers of which back roads to avoid and where in Alabama to slow down to stay out of jail, keep property and avoid exorbitant fines and fees.
Throughout 2022, the team of three reporters and one editor reported on policing for profit in Alabama and chronicled the rise and fall of the Brookside Police Department. The AL.com project demonstrated the power of local investigative journalism to make a real and lasting difference in a community. The investigation had a true impact, restoring justice to a town whose guardians had become predators.