An Alabama pastor accused police of malicious prosecution and defamation over a traffic stop, and he's not the only person suing a small town and its police officers.
Rev. Vincent Witt, a Baptist preacher and chaplain of the city of Lipscomb, told AL.com the officer, Marcus Sellers, pulled him over in Brookside for having a paper tag in June 2019, saying the vehicle fit the description of a stolen car.
“It’s a brand new car,” Witt recalled telling the officer. “I just bought it a few days ago.”
Sellers asked for identification and questioned his chaplain's badge, Witt said, and the pastor said he responded with a racial slur.
“I said, ‘Do you pull everybody over like this?’” Witt recalled, and according to the lawsuit, the officer responded: “‘Look you f***ing n***** just stay out of Brookside.’”
Witt made a complaint as soon as he got home and left a message for the chief, but Lt. Bo Savelle called back asking for "Officer Witt" and told him to come to the police station to file the complaint, and the pastor explained he was a chaplain and not an officer.
“Brookside is a real racist police department," Witt told the officer.
Witt and his sister Tareya, who wasn't even in the car, were then charged a few days later with impersonating police officers, and the department posted their photos on its Facebook page and Crime Stoppers.
“After the church service was over,” said Tareya Witt, a longtime federal employee. “I pulled him (Vincent) to the side and showed him the picture, and he was, like, ‘What? Oh, I guess they’re getting me back because I called to report how they treat people.’ I said, ‘Well, where did they get my name from because I wasn’t even in the car?’”
Brookside later dismissed the charges without explanation, and the pair are among at least five individuals suing the city's police department.
“Given the alleged and, truthfully, bizarre conduct — issuing and approving fabricated charges against Pastor Witt and Ms. Witt for impersonating police officers, without probable cause, and publicizing the charges on Facebook and Crime Stoppers in retaliation for Pastor Witt’s complaint — the court is unconvinced that Officers Savelle and Jones are entitled to qualified immunity," said U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon, who allowed the malicious prosecution and defamation to proceed.
AL.com conducted months of research and dozens of interviews and found Brookside -- which has at least one police officer for every 144 people -- derived more than half of its income from fines and forfeitures by police, an increase of 640 percent between 2018 and 2020.
The town of just 1,253 reported only 55 serious crimes in the eight-year period between 2011 and 2018, but saw its revenues skyrocket after adding more officers to patrol its roads, and by 2020 it had more misdemeanor arrests than residents.