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Friday, December 1, 2023

Police chief returned to duty, but fighting continues in Tarrant: ‘It’s embarrassing.’

Embattled police chief Wendell Major is back on duty after the Tarrant city council unanimously overruled his suspension by the mayor.

The vote Monday night was the climax to a long and loud meeting in the small city just north of Birmingham, as council members and citizens roasted Mayor Wayman Newton, accusing him of creating a conspiracy to get rid of the police chief over a grudge.

Newton took nearly 20 minutes before the vote to explain why he put Major on administrative leave. Council members made no eye contact with Newton and at times shook their heads as some residents audibly disputed his points.

“None of this means anything to me,” replied council member and Mayor Pro-Tem Tracie Threadford.

From the audience, Tarrant resident Novillee Williams jumped from her seat to directly address city leaders.

“Mayor, I ask God to have mercy on your soul,” said Williams, her finger wagging at Newton. “I’m sick and tired of people asking ‘What’s wrong with your mayor?’ It’s embarrassing. God’s going to punish you.”

Council members were united as they reversed the move by Newton to place Major on administrative leave a week ago.

“Mayor Newton’s allegations are nothing more than products of his imagination, and I want to ensure that the city council understands the reality of my job performance,” Major told the council. “With your support, I am confident that we can move forward and continue serving the community with the integrity and commitment it deserves.”

The vote was the latest in a series of legal and political volleys between the mayor and council that includes lawsuits, directives, and frequent public insults in a city of about 6,000 residents. The back and forth remains active, including a pending lawsuit from the mayor asking a Jefferson County judge to prevent the council from reinstating the chief.

Newton’s request for an emergency to block the vote was denied Monday by Judge Patrick Ballard. Still, an earlier lawsuit that challenges the council’s authority to intervene in police personnel matters remains pending.

On the other side both Major and lawyers for the city council call Newton’s litigation frivolous.

Newton accused the chief of poor performance, including blaming him for contributing to confusion surrounding a shooting last week off Interstate 59 in west Birmingham.

Multiple people were shot on Interstate 59 southbound in west Birmingham on Nov. 10. Earlier that day, officers responded to a call of a stolen vehicle in Tarrant. That stolen vehicle was later found in Birmingham where four people were shot, including two who were critically injured.

The National Crime Information Center database allows law enforcement agencies to enter and search for information including stolen property and missing or wanted persons. Newton alleges that law enforcement, before the incident, escalated the situation into a mass shooting because they could not confirm the vehicle was stolen since it was not in the NCIC database.

Newton said Tarrant dispatchers were unable to enter information into the NCIC database because Major had suspended their authority. Major disputed the claim, saying the dispatchers no longer had authority because the mayor removed them from under his supervision.

“Regardless of what you hear from council members, when he took the dispatchers off NCIC, he put this city in jeopardy,” Newton said.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Ballard last week ended the NCIC dispute and put the dispatchers under the police department’s direction, reinstating their authority to access the NCIC. Lawyers for the city council have asked Ballard to dismiss the court case.

“Ever since the chief did not lie for you at Tommy’s trial you have been after him,” said council member Deborah Matthews, referring to legal action between Mayor Newton and council member Tommy Bryant that resulted in separate arrests and acquittals of both men in two incidents.

Tarrant City Council meeting 11-21-23

Tarrant Councilwoman Deborah Matthews accused Mayor Wayman Newton of suspending police chief Wendell Major due to an ongoing grudge. Matthews never made eye contact with Newton during the exchange before voting to reinstate Major.joseph D. Bryant (screnshot)

A Jefferson County District Judge in May ruled that the mayor used “fighting words” when he made sexually insulting remarks about Bryant’s wife in the parking lot of Tarrant City Hall after a council meeting last year which resulted in Bryant’s reacting with a punch.

“I don’t want to talk to you,” Matthews said last night, placing her hands up in Newton’s direction, not turning to face him.

Newton remained mostly silent during the exchanges,

“This is a setup and it’s coming from the mayor’s office,” Williams said, standing back up from her seat in the audience to address Newton. “You think you’re a bag of chips without the dip. You look bad, not him. People are tired of looking at you.”

Newton has asked the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to investigate his claims against Major. That invitation for state officials to come into the city was the one item that both the mayor and council agreed should occur. Threadford said she will not believe any findings by Newton.

“Nothing is going to come out of this without an ALEA investigation.” she said.

Newton told AL.com that he has requested the investigation and is awaiting an official response.

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