Ala. officers call in sick in 'Blue Flu' protest
Low pay and other safety demands caused officers from both shifts to call in sick
By Marty Roney and Alvin Benn
SELMA, Ala. — Both patrol shifts of the Selma Police Department called in sick Thursday, which had supervisors scrambling to cover the city.
Low pay seems to be the root of the officers' concerns, said Chief John Brock. Supervisors took over patrol duties and the city is being served, Brock said. The department has two, 12-hour shifts. Day shift called in sick at 5:30 a.m. A full shift is five officers, he said. Night shift called in sick about 7 a.m., Brock said.
"We heard rumors that this was going to happen, we just didn't know it was going to be this quick, but we knew it was going to happen," the chief said. "So we got on the phone this morning and called all the supervisors in. We assigned them to the areas that needed patrolling. We're well protected. We have more officers out there now than we would have with a full shift."
The chief, officers and the mayor and city council had a lengthy closed-door meeting that Brock said ended about 7 p.m. Thursday without any clear-cut decision.
"Right now, it's in their ball park as to whether they plan to report to work Friday morning," Brock said. "If they don't we have plans in place to make sure that these patrols will be handled properly."
The Dallas County Sheriff's Office and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has offered officers to assist SPD if there is a need.
"Blue Flu" work stoppages involving public jobs across the country have been used as pressure tactics in the past. Pay raises and safety demands often are the issues involved.
Brock said Selma police officers receive one "sick day" a month and indicated no punishment would be handed down to those who played a role in what happened.
He said 10 officers called in "sick" just as the sun began to rise Thursday morning. Brock said the department has 47 employees.
As of about 2 p.m. Thursday, all was quiet in Selma.
"Right now we've got it, we have plenty of officers out on the street answering calls," Brock said. "We are answering the 911 calls, the basic calls. The citizens should feel safe, because we have just as many officers, or more, on the streets doing what the shift was supposed to be doing this morning.
"Everything's quiet. We've had just standard calls today, nothing major's happened."
Dallas County District Attorney Michael Jackson made it clear he supports law enforcement officers "who put their lives on the line every day."
"They shouldn't have to work long, long hours to make ends meet so they can provide for their families," said Jackson. "This money issue should have been resolved long ago."
Call it a sick out or the "Blue Flu," the situation was the grist for conversation with the lunch crowd. Terry Peagues walked out of The Downtowner, a popular local eatery located in the shadows of police headquarters.
"It's disturbing," he said. "Of all the places that need police, Selma's right up there on the list. We have a higher than normal crime rate for a city our size anyway. I hope this thing doesn't stretch into several days."
Selma's population estimate in July 2015 was 19,519, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Officers earlier this week sent a letter to Mayor George Evans and city council members asking for a meeting to discuss pay.
One of the "Blue Flu" officers who refused to work Thursday read a statement in defense of their actions in a field a few feet from a city building named for Evans.
The mayor, who is seeking a third term in this month's municipal elections, arrived in early afternoon and said he would do what he could to bring the matter to a decision favorable to all sides.
"Some things are going to happen in the next couple of months to resolve this problem but you just can't give something you don't have," said the mayor.
The last time police received a pay raise was 2007, records reflect. Starting salary for a patrol officer is $12.90 an hour, or about $28,000 a year.
"I think the officers just want to have a voice, and I support them," Brock said. "They hear from their supervisors, they hear from me, all the time. I think they want to talk to the mayor and council and express their concerns."
Pay should be raised, Connie Agee, a Selma resident said.
"I'm surprised at how low the pay is," she said. "I don't know if a strike is the best way to get attention, but they do need to make more money."
Several local residents turned out for what they hoped would be an open public meeting and stood outside in sweltering temperatures.
Selma City Council president Corey Bowie arrived shortly after the mayor and echoed his sentiments that problems will be addressed so that the officers can return to work.
"This meeting was not something that was impromptu," said Bowie. "We've been working on this issue for a long time. First you have to find the funds for raises, but the most important thing is to make sure they are self-sustainable."