By William C. Singleton III and Ariel Worthy
For the Birmingham Times
Mark Pettway, challenger for the seat of Jefferson County sheriff, said he has a proactive plan to address criminal justice reform and stop the revolving door of people in and out of prison.
Democrat Pettway will face incumbent Republican Mike Hale in the Tuesday, November 6, general election to determine who will lead the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office for the next four years.
Pettway said his number-one priority is to ensure the public safety of Jefferson County’s citizens by addressing the core issues of crime “that plague our county,” including one of the most pressing issues facing the Sheriff’s Office: school safety.
“We should have had a plan in place … to make sure our children are safe,” he said. “There was a [report] that ranked the 134 school systems in Alabama, showing the safest school districts. Jefferson County was not listed among the top 100. Our children … and teachers deserve better.”
Partnering with the Jefferson County Board of Education is an important part of ensuring that schools are safe, Pettway said.
“We need metal detectors, we need cameras, we need doorstops to make sure no one gets into a place where children are safe. We also have to make sure someone is manning the metal detectors, to make sure metal detectors are not just standing there; someone has to monitor them at all entrances.”
School Resource Officers
Pettway also wants a school resource officer (SRO) in every school—“a trained resource officer, not a retired one.”
School safety is personal for the candidate: “I do not advocate for teachers and administrators in schools to be armed. It’s my job to protect; it’s the teacher’s job to teach. I have two daughters who are teachers. They say they did not sign up to take a gun to a classroom.”
Pettway, a detective sergeant in the Sheriff’s Office who emerged from a four-candidate field this summer to win the Democratic nomination, has more than 25 years of law-enforcement experience, including stints with the Birmingham and Fairfield police departments. If elected, he would become the first black to serve as sheriff.
He said community policing and criminal justice reform top his agenda.
“I will implement accountability and the community will know their officers. The officers will get out of their cars and the community will know them by their names,” he said.
Under his guidance, Pettway said the entire Sheriff’s Office will improve on communicating with the public. “If I can communicate my thoughts and ideas to anybody and I can get them to buy into what I’m trying to, then there’s progress. Good communication skills are needed to build influence and get things done,” he said.
Criminal Justice Reform
In addition to concentrating on school safety, Pettway wants to focus on criminal justice reform which means, “We are not building more prisons but rehabbing those who are incarcerated. [We want to] make sure that when they leave, they don’t come back. [We want them to have] opportunities, … to get education and vocational skills, so they can be employed.”
The revolving doors of prison must stop, he said.
“We don’t want to send people home the same way they came in. We want to educate them and no more of people profiting from others going to jail.” Pettway said. “We have to stop the privatization of prisons and start teaching inmates skills that are necessary to become employed when they get out.”
As for the hiring consent decree the Sheriff’s Office had been under, Pettway said he was surprised it took so long for the department to be released.
The consent decree was issued as part of a 1970s-era consolidated lawsuit that alleged the county, City of Birmingham, sheriff’s office and the Personnel Board of Jefferson County discriminated against blacks and women in their hiring and promotions.
Birmingham and the Jefferson County Personnel Board, which provides employment services for the county and cities, were ultimately released from their decrees. Last year a U.S. District Judge released the Sheriff’s Office from the decree.
“We have to make sure we have fairer hiring practices, fairer promotion practices. It wasn’t until last year that we came from under the consent decree,” he said. “To me, that was not reflective of the community, that was not reflective of the hiring practices of the community.”
A major focus of Pettway’s campaign has been the effort to equip sheriff’s deputies with body cameras. Last month, Hale announced that deputies would be equipped with body cameras, and Pettway takes some credit for the plan.
“We were advocating for body cameras, and my opponent at the last minute, on the eve of the election took my idea and implemented it,” he said. “To me, that’s election-time politics.”
Hale said the issue of equipping sheriff’s deputies with body cameras was in the works before he knew he would face Pettway in the November 6 general election.
Pettway said, “We have to bridge the gap right now between law enforcement and the community. Right now, there’s no trust and we need body cameras and dashboard cameras and, under my watch, we will be transparent.”
Citizens’ Review Board
As sheriff, Pettway said he wants to bridge the gap by creating a citizens’ review board: “Nobody reviews the actions of the officers right now.”
He also wants deputies to receive training that will equip them to help people dealing with mental-health issues.
Pettway is a lifelong Jefferson County resident, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood not far from Birmingham’s Legion Field. He started his professional career in 1991 with the Birmingham Police Department, where he served as a correctional specialist. He joined the Fairfield Police Department in 1993 as a police officer, responding to calls, making arrests, issuing citations, and testifying in court cases.
He joined the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 1999 and was promoted to detective in 2008. He was selected in 2012 to serve as an internal revenue task force officer, enforcing federal laws involving money structuring, racketeering, money laundering, and the Bank Secrecy Act. He was promoted in 2013 to detective sergeant, serving in the areas of criminal investigation, involving crimes of burglary, theft, and fraud.
Pettway also is a member of the Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Benevolent Association, and he is a former member of the Law Enforcement Bicycle Association.
www.blackpressusa.com contributed to this report.