Report: off-duty officer’s MPD cruiser was backed into while parked at a Waffle House in Birmingham
On Tuesday night, Marion City Council’s agenda for its regular meeting included an item entitled “police incident report.”
“I know we’ve had some discussion about the vehicles being parked,” said Mayor Dexter Hinton, by way of introducing the topic for discussion. “I’ll take a recommendation on how we would move forward.”
Hinton was referring to discussions the council has had in the past about police officers being allowed to take city vehicles home with them when off duty. The council has generally opposed the practice in the past, but had stopped short of enacting actual policy on the issue until that night.
Hinton told council members, “Y’all got a report from me you should have in your packages.” He was referring to an accident report generated by the Birmingham Police Department involving Robert Sykes, who was, at the time of the accident, an officer with the Marion Police Department.
Councilmember Willie Jackson called attention to Sykes’ name on the report.
“Look down here and I see, the owner of the car is [recorded as] Robert Sykes. And that’s a municipal car,” said Jackson.
The Waffle House Incident
The report, dated July 2, had not come before the council before Tuesday night’s meeting over two months later. According to the accident report, the Marion Police car driven by Sykes was parked at the Waffle House at the intersection of Valley Ave. and Green Springs Highway in Birmingham at 4:22 a.m. when another driver backed into it. The damage to the vehicle was, by all accounts, minor.
“From looking at the damage that has happened, I look at it as an incident,” said Hinton. “I look at it as day-to-day operation. Because it was not totaled. This was $300 worth of damage. Hasn’t nobody lost their life, haven’t been any vehicles totaled out, we had the vehicle repaired in a timely fashion.”
Jackson said the council had not been given “much to go by” to assess what happened on the night in question.
“I was given this [report],” said Hinton. “I was emailed this.”
Jackson asked when the city had received the accident report. “Why are we just now finding out about it?”
“Actually, the report had been requested for over a month. We had a discrepancy. So I don’t know why Birmingham can’t get it to us in a timely fashion,” said Hinton.
Councilman Joe Pearson said he had consulted the department’s work schedule for the day in question, and Sykes had been off duty since the night before the accident.
“If the accident happened at 4:22 a.m. on July 2, what was that [car] out at 4:00 in the morning when he got off at 6:00 the night before?” said Pearson.
“Well, so what would you all like the distance to be that they can travel?” said Hinton. “You’re saying that’s a misuse of the vehicles… what are we going to do? Why I’m asking this is…if we have an officer that’s going to any emergency in the city, they have to be there in a timely fashion. In their own personal vehicle, they don’t have lights, they don’t have sirens, they have to get here. So what is our accommodation going to be to address that issue?”
“I say we just terminate his employment,” said Pearson. “He’s already said that,” said Hinton.
“I say we terminate it tonight,” said Pearson.
“He’s already gone,” said Hinton.
“He left this city for a whole week, shorthanded.
He was supposed to work 7 to 7 yesterday, but he didn’t show up until 5:00 yesterday afternoon,” said Pearson. According to Marion PD duty logs, Sykes recently took a week off by combining sick leave, scheduled time off, and vacation time.
“The email was sent last week,” said Hinton. “I made contact to return the vehicle to our contact. And he sent an email about resigning.” Hinton said the council should consider that officers are “on call 24 hours a day. That’s all I’m saying. If something happens to me, I want somebody to be able to get there and have some sirens.”
“All I’m saying is, the citizens of Marion have got to be secured, safe, have to have people accountable to be able to do their job,” he said.
“I’ll say this,” said Jackson. “A month ago, or two months ago, if they would have brought the car in, this never would have happened. It never would have had an accident. We told you.”
“Arguments can be made, ‘Should they be able to take the cars home, should they not?’” said Councilmember Jeff Nail.
“This happened on a Saturday evening, at 4:00 in the morning, at a Waffle House in Birmingham. And then it just sort of sat around for two and a half months. And then, when questions were asked, the officer resigned. There are a lot of questions this incident brings up.”
“What we’re seeing is pretty minor,” said Nail, referring to the superficial damage the car sustained. “But a car accident in a city car on a weekend, when it’s my understanding he typically didn’t work weekends. Basically it came across to the city council that this happened and then when questions were asked… there shouldn’t be a lot of ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ It’s very straightforward to ask him what happened. And he should have provided a narrative to the city. And it should have checked out with this [report],” Nail said. “And all I know is that someone was at a Waffle House at 4:00 in the morning on Valley Ave. I’ll let y’all check that [location] out. It raises more than a few alarm bells.” “It doesn’t take much to say, ‘Four in the morning, let’s check the schedule. Okay, that doesn’t check out.’ It was a very minor incident, but it brought up a lot of questions that were just sort of ignored. And I think it’s a shame that it lingered this long, Nail continued.
“Regarding taking home cars—yeah, we do need officers here. But if someone’s breaking into my house, I really don’t want to wait on someone to drive in from Birmingham.”
“We don’t have any local officers,” said Hinton. He asked if the council wanted to “Work up a policy or something.”
“My recommendation is this—if you don’t reside in the city limits, not to take them outside the city limits,” said Councilmember Bernard Arrington.
Ultimately, the council voted to approve a policy that night, based on a motion made by Pearson and seconded by Arrington, that officers, with the exception of the chief of police, not be allowed to take their cars outside the city limits. That motion carried by unanimous voice vote.