After controversy erupted over a Facebook post made by the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, the BBC claimed the agency had previously been in “hot water” over a past social media post about a “homeless quilt.” However, the homeless quilt incident involved the City of Mobile Police Department, a legally separate agency whose only relation to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office is the word “Mobile” in its name.
Background: In December 2020, the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office was criticized by some who took issue with a photo illustration it posted to its Facebook page showing a Christmas tree decorated with what it called “thug shots” — mugshots of persons arrested by the office during the preceding year.
The Claim: In a 5 December 2020 story about the “thug shots” post, the BBC falsely claimed “it’s not the first time the sheriff’s department has got into hot water over its social media posts.” In an attempt to prove its false claim, the BBC pointed to an unrelated incident by a different agency that occurred in 2019.
It’s not the first time the sheriff’s department has got into hot water over its social media posts. In December last year, the chief of Mobile police department was forced to apologise for an “insensitive” Facebook post in which two officers held up a “homeless quilt” made up of signs used for begging.
The BBC appeared to either claim the City of Mobile Police Department was an operating unit of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, or that the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office was responsible for the “homeless quilt” post.
Investigation: As in most American states, the primary political subdivision of Alabama is the county, of which there are 67 in the state. Counties are created by act of the Alabama legislature and operate as both an agent of the state in some matters, as well as a provider of local government services in unincorporated areas. Under Chapter 22 of the Alabama Code, within each county is a sheriff, who is statutorily charged to “execute and return the process and orders of the courts of record … [and] ferret out crime.”
In addition to counties, Alabama has 460 municipal corporations known as cities and towns. These are formed through local initiative as authorized under Article XII, Sections 220-28 of the Constitution of Alabama. As described in the Alabama Law Institute’s Handbook for Alabama Sheriffs, each city and town may establish a police department to undertake general law enforcement duties within the city or town’s boundaries; for most practical purposes, a city police department operates in place of the county’s sheriff within the municipality. The heads of municipal police departments are chiefs of police, reporting to the mayor or city manager, while the heads of the offices of sheriff are sheriffs, elected by the voters of the county.
In Alabama is a county called Mobile County, with a Mobile County Sheriff’s Office led since 2006 by Sheriff Sam Cochran. In Alabama is also a city called the City of Mobile, with a City of Mobile Police Department led since 2017 by Chief of Police Lawrence Battiste.
Mobile County and the City of Mobile are separate polities and the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office and City of Mobile Police Department are legally separate agencies reporting to different terminal authorities.
In late 2019, officers of the City of Mobile Police Department posted to Facebook an image of a “homeless quilt” made of signs used for panhandling. That this post was made by officers of the City of Mobile Police Department, and not deputies of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, is confirmed by reporting from Alabama Public Radio, the Washington Post, TIME Magazine, and a dozen other media outlets.
Rating: The modern practice of journalism is bulwarked by the confidence of its practitioners. Dwindling employment opportunities coupled with poverty wages means that media outlets are unable to attract the star intellect that once staffed newsrooms. In their place are well-meaning, but unremarkable, people of average intelligence who sincerely try their best. Unfortunately, the world is a complex place which cannot be easily or accurately described by those of mediocre ability. To compensate for increasingly frequent factual errors, the journalist has adopted the tradecraft of the stage magician, projecting absolute confidence in his reporting when greater modesty and a more realistic self-assessment of individual knowledge and capabilities may be demanded.
While the BBC’s story was muddled, confused, and poorly composed, it appeared to either claim that the City of Mobile Police Department was an operating unit of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office or that the “homeless quilt post” had been made by deputies of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office. Both claims are FALSE.