TARRANT, Ala. (WIAT) — On Monday morning, Tarrant Mayor Wayman Newton placed Police Chief Wendell Major on a five day administrative leave.
According to Newton, the stolen vehicle Friday’s I-59 S shootout centered around was originally reported in Tarrant. According to a lawsuit Newton filed against Major and the city council, this stolen vehicle issue is directly tied to issues happening in Tarrant regarding some city employees’ access to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
The correlation all comes down to a change in who Tarrant’s public safety dispatchers report to. At the end of October, Newton made the decision that the city’s dispatchers would report to the fire chief instead of the police chief. This became an issue because there’s a law stating that in order to access NCIC, you must be under someone who is certified by the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center (ACJIS). In Tarrant, the police chief is ACJIS certified while the fire chief is not.
“I had to go certify who worked for me and who would retain access. I did that, I went there, clicked on the people there I had working under my direction, certified they’re there, and I removed everybody I did not supervise so that they would not have access,” said Major.
“Allowing someone to have unauthorized access to criminal justice information is a felony in Alabama, punishable by 5 years in prison. I do not intend to spend a day in Alabama prison,” said Chief Wendell Major.
Newton filed a lawsuit in the Jefferson County Circuit Court against Major and the Tarrant City Council, asking the judge to require the chief to reinstate dispatcher access to NCIC and keep city council from interfering with and ending the chief’s administrative leave.
In the lawsuit, Newton says dispatchers’ access to NCIC was removed on November 8, two weeks after the change was made, but neither he nor the fire chief were made aware of this access removal. Major says when he received notice of the dispatcher change on October 24, he emailed ALEA to verify what the law was regarding NCIC access. Major said when ALEA told him certification was required for access, he forwarded that email to Tarrant Fire Chief Paul Bennett.
“We have been in contact with ALEA and they’re walking us through the process to which Chief Bennett will be able to supervise them and he’ll be able to have access to all of the databases,” said Newton. “We’re in talks with ALEA in terms of coming in and doing an investigation. So depending on how long or when they’re able to come in and do the investigation, and the length of time it’s going to take them to do the investigation, we’re going to move forward with permission to extend the administrative leave.”
The public safety dispatchers without access to NCIC creates a trickle-down effect of problems. This database is where warrants are checked, car tags and licenses are run and stolen vehicle information is stored. Without dispatchers being able to help officers checking and updating the database, police officers are having to do this themselves.
On November 10, a Tarrant police officer responded to a report of a stolen vehicle. According to the lawsuit, when writing the report the officer said “the vehicle could not be entered into NCIC due to the dispatchers not having NCIC access.” This allegedly stolen vehicle was later seen in Birmingham.
Newton’s lawsuit said the victim called police to alert them their stolen vehicle was spotted but because the information was not entered into NCIC, it slowed down police response as they had to manually verify the information.
“I think that the reporting officer did say that, but the indication is that that reporting officer has certified access to NCIC and there’s a manual maintained to tell anybody who is certified how to actually do everything,” said Major. “Even if that was the case, the dispatcher who knew the process could have told the officer how to do it.”
Newton said his decision to switch dispatchers from being under the police chief to being under the fire chief came partly from a gender and racial discrimination complaint.
We have reached out to ALEA to learn more about the certification requirements for NCIC access and how long that process takes, as well as the potential investigation into Chief Major, but have yet to hear back.