A new Decatur police policy limits the number of vehicles in a funeral procession to 15, and several funeral home operators and a city councilman are unhappy about the break from a tradition that had no restrictions.
The new limit does not include the hearse, a funeral home vehicle and a vehicle for family of the deceased.
Police Chief Nate Allen said the policy change shortening funeral processions is a safety issue. He views the practice as a “privilege.” He said he didn’t how much it costs the department to work funeral processions.
“We had to either shorten the number of cars or eliminate the practice altogether,” Allen said.
Capt. Chris Jones said funeral processions had grown so large and dangerous they had to re-examine the practice. They were getting up to 40 vehicles in a line and “overwhelming the Police Department and what we’re trying to do. This is really a safety issue for the police officers, those riding in the processions and those vehicles who aren’t involved.”
Jones said funeral processions are a tradition, so the 15-vehicle limit is a compromise intended to avoid eliminating them entirely, the approach taken by cities like Cullman and Birmingham.
Councilman Billy Jackson said the traditional funeral procession should continue, without charge, as a sign of respect for the dead.
Jackson met recently with Allen and Mayor Tab Bowling to discuss the new policy. He said he would like for the City Council to override the Police Department decision and possibly add funding to help the chief if it’s a budget issue.
“For decades we’ve been doing funeral procession escorts with no limits,” Jackson said. “This is a service we provide at a time when people are grieving the loss of a family member, co-worker or friend.”
Bowling wasn’t willing to intervene at Jackson's request. He said the new funeral procession policy is a manpower issue for the Police Department, and he only gets involved in department policies “if it’s a legal matter.”
Jackson said it doesn’t make sense that the city is willing to have four police officers, including Allen, an administrative officer and two officers as guards, attend City Council meetings but not fully cover funerals.
“So we can protect our officials but we can’t protect our public,” Jackson said.
Councilwoman Kristi Hill said she doesn’t think the City Council needs to intervene. She pointed out that a lot of cities are no longer doing funeral processions.
“He (Jackson) complains about micromanaging, but I see this (intervening) as micromanaging,” Hill said. “The chief knows his personnel, and he said he will work with people who might have large families.”
Not 'true emergency'
Dexter Elliott, owner of Reynolds Funeral Home, is unhappy with the change.
“It’s a bad change from the tradition we have in showing respect to our loved ones,” Elliott said. “One of the benefits of paying taxes is you should get a police escort on your funeral procession.”
Elliott said he doesn’t understand why the Police Department is cutting back now when there aren’t as many funerals as there used to be because more people are choosing to be cremated.
Jackson said funeral processions are particularly useful for visitors who don’t know where the gravesite is.
“I recently attended a funeral in Nashville and I didn’t know where the cemetery was. It was very helpful,” Jackson said.
Stan Clemons, director of Roselawn Funeral Home, said 15 vehicles aren’t enough. While he’s often able to bury the deceased in the cemetery behind his funeral home, occasionally the funerals are held at churches or the burial is in another cemetery.
“In our funeral on Friday, just the family alone had more than 15 cars,” Clemons said. “I wish (the limit) were 20 to 25 cars like Madison County and Huntsville.”
Allen said three officers work each funeral procession. One leads the procession, a second follows it and a third leaps from intersection to intersection.
Jones said officers “are doing something unsafe” when they have to go into oncoming lanes and run red lights.
It’s a tradition that drivers in oncoming lanes stop out of respect, but state law doesn’t require them to stop. This can particularly be an issue on Sixth Avenue/U.S. 31, Allen said.
“It’s an old practice with a lot of liability in it,” Allen said. “State law only truly allows officers to run lights and sirens for a true emergency, and a funeral escort is not considered a true emergency.”
The Traffic Unit typically has three to four officers writing traffic citations and working wrecks during a daytime shift. This unit has to focus all of its time only on a funeral procession when it occurs, and this can take two or three hours.
Patrol officers cover for the Traffic Units in responding to wrecks during a funeral escort.
Other cities' policies
Most north Alabama police departments still provide funeral escorts.
Huntsville city spokeswoman Jessica Carlton said her city will provide four officers as funeral escorts for free for a limit of 25 vehicles. However, the department prefers that off-duty police officers are hired, which costs $30 an hour each for a minimum of three hours. That would cost $360 if four officers are paid.
Carlton said the officers working the free detail can’t guarantee they won’t have to leave if some emergency or other issue occurs that requires their response.
Jones said Decatur PD considered requiring off-duty officers, but they didn’t want to go as far yet as making people pay for funeral escorts.
Clemons said he worries about the liability issue for his funeral home and the families if they have to hire off-duty officers.
“Liability insurance is expensive,” Clemons said. “And a city or county can more easily afford it than a private business or person.”
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said his department doesn’t limit the number of vehicles in funeral procession. Like the other departments, his officers may have to leave for an emergency if called.
“I don’t want to ever have to limit the number of cars in a funeral procession,” Johnson said. “It’s a service of respect, and I would like to carry on the tradition.”
However, Johnson recently asked the City Council to hire seven more police officers to deal with the city’s growth. The request was not funded in the city’s fiscal 2020 budget.
“If we’re not able to keep up with the growth, we will have to make some decisions,” Johnson said. “This could be one of a number of cuts we have to make.”
Sgt. Clayton Jordan of the Madison Police Department said his department wants funeral processions to stay under 25 vehicles. He said personnel availability and length of the procession determine how many officers work a funeral detail.
“We’re not at the point yet where we’re asking people to use off-duty officers,” Jordan said.
Cullman police in conjunction with funeral homes ended processions in the early 1990s for safety reasons, said Police Chief Kenny Culpepper.
“So far, it hasn’t been a big issue,” he said.
Culpepper, chief since 1988, said early in his tenure there was a collision between a vehicle speeding to fill a gap in a procession and a motorist crossing at a green light unaware there was a procession in progress. Police had cleared the intersection earlier and gone to another one when there was no cross-traffic.
“To safely do one, you have to control every intersection,” Culpepper said.
Allen said the new policy is the result of an ongoing policy review as his department seeks Committee on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agency certification.
This same review resulted in developing a policy on immigration enforcement that Bowling criticized before the policy was amended.