Jon Carroll wants to “beat the cops” who have brought him all of this attention. “If I had known this would be the result … I would have whooped one of them,” Carroll told me, laughing, voice drenched in a syrupy Southern accent.
Carroll is speaking of the spotlight that has followed him ever since he published a report earlier this month on his blog, the Henry County Report, based on a ream of documents—over 800 in total, he says—purportedly given to him by those cops. It is a report that has thrust Carroll at the fraught intersection of police brutality, racial discrimination, and citizen journalism.
For Carroll, these documents detail decades’ worth of systematized drug- and weapons-planting by the police force in Dothan, Alabama, on young black males. Further, as Carroll wrote, the files “reveal that the internal affairs investigation was covered up to protect the aforementioned officers’ law enforcement careers and keep them from being criminally prosecuted”—and that the men in question “are now in secure positions of leadership in law enforcement.”
Carroll said these documents, a handful of which were published as original source material, should compel a Department of Justice investigation into the police force. Combining police brutalism with racialized targeting, and coming on the heels of Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago, the report struck a chord and he quickly found himself inundated with response.
For others, however, Carroll and his crew are emblematic of what can go wrong in the age of news virality, in which unscrupulous bloggers can prey on heightened sensitivities to police abuse to push a sensational—and false— story about institutionalized racism.
“They came to me with the documents, and I said, ‘Holy cow, if what you’re telling me is true with these 807 documents, you’re gonna get me killed,’” Carroll said. “I didn’t know they’d put me in mental anguish of 184 news organizations hounding me.”
Anguish is a price the Dothan native, now living outside Seattle, is willing to pay. Carroll claims he has wanted to uproot corruption for years. For Carroll, it’s also personal; in a video pushed by the Henry County Report, Carroll detailed his own experience on the receiving end of a putative drug-plant—baggies, stems, all of it.
He also noted, growling as he went, “I kind of have my dad’s philosophy: If you give me an ounce of hell that I don’t deserve, I’m going to then extract a pound of flesh.” A bit later, he tacked on: “Journalism here is a dangerous profession.”
It’s one he’s trying to reform, at least nominally. The Henry County Report is less a journalistic outfit than a hyper-local blog covering affairs that, Carroll says, other outlets are too timorous and too sidelined to cover. Nestled into Alabama’s southeastern reaches, equidistant from Montgomery and Tallahassee, Dothan is as much a Dixie overhang as any town in the state. A conservative core of a conservative core. In one indicative stat, The Washington Post’s Radley Balko has estimated that “among counties with three or more death sentences,” Dothan’s Houston County boasts the highest rate of death-row sentences in the nation.
But there’s an especial loathing Carroll holds for the media, which he sees as quislings for the local government. “If it’s a negative story—say, a black kid shooting another black kid—that’s front-page news, but if so-and-so runs over some old lady and cuts her leg off, it’s no coverage,” Carroll told me. “And the other paper, you read it, you’d think we lived in paradise. … We’re like we’re back in the Orwell days.”
It wasn’t until a stint in Massachusetts—nights sleeping in his truck, days spent grinding through literature classes—that Carroll had a revelation about his hometown. “I’m a cow man, drive an old truck, and have a little book that has grammar for dummies,” he said, “and you find out that the place you live is ranked the most judicial and legislative corrupt in whole damn nation.”
Soon after, Carroll tossed his Master’s in landscape architecture, and hooked up with a handful of other journalist-cum-activists who originally hailed from Dothan and its environs to create the Henry County Report earlier this year. “It’s the four of us, all poor rural residents, not professional journalists,” he said. “We want to let these people tell their stories that normal media would never want to put up there. That’s our purpose.”
Teresa Crozier, who has known Carroll since high school and works with him at the Henry County Report, said their reportage comes amidst an atmosphere of fear and antipathy, including police retribution that forced her to uproot to Georgia a few years ago. “A lot of people around here have been killed, or are missing,” Crozier told me, voice strained. “Unbelievable things happen to people who cross this wall of silence.”
One of those unbelievable stories, per Crozier, details the alleged use of fire ants to force confessions from suspects—a story she says will soon be unveiled by a former prosecutor. “I stopped being afraid a long time ago, but I’m more cautious, more aware of my surroundings, not making any new friends,” she added.
It’s admirable, in its way. A handful of concerned citizens, battling entrenched elites, grappling with centuries’ worth of racial tensions. And now they’re claiming that they’ve uncovered evidence of white officers planting weed, coke, and firearms on local black youth for years, with victims running into the thousands and the cover-up reaching all the way up to the Department of Homeland Security.
The story didn’t take long to find is way into the national discourse. The Southern Poverty Law Center led the charge: “If you read anything tonight, let this be it,” the organization tweeted, along with a link to Carroll’s post. A bit later, from Vox’s Matt Yglesias’s Twitter account: “PC culture really got out of hand in this town! Yikes.” And from Slate’s Jamelle Bouie: “Neo-Confederate police officers in Alabama planted drugs and weapons on black suspects for years.” And from Balko: “Keep this handy for the next time someone argues that racism is no longer a problem in the criminal justice system.” Thousands of retweets later, plus a couple posts from the New Republic and The Week, and the allegations had been thoroughly disseminated.
A systematic cover-up, transgression unabated, the decimation of young black males at the hands of a cynical white police force, all weltering and intertwining in the Deep South—of course the story struck. “It’s an explosive story, a crazy story,” Bouie told me. “It seemed believable in this almost too-good-to-be true-way. Not like it was exciting, but that it’s not a stretch to imagine it.”
But there was a problem, for Carroll and the others pushing the story: Not a one of the documents shared back up the claims made in the post. The allegations hung, without any public evidence to back them. That’s not to say the documents disprove the claims, per se. And at least a handful of those shared, redactions and all, thus far appear authentic. But as Slate later wrote, the documents “weren’t definitive proof of anything, let alone a massive conspiracy by white supremacist cops to plant evidence on 1,000 black men.”
The walk-backs have continued, with SPLC issuing a rare retraction and Balko offering an entire post dedicated to his regret in sharing the story. “I saw the link originally from a person on Twitter whose stuff I trust, and retweeted it,” Bouie said. “Lots of people tweeted it under the assumption that that person who they got it from, who was tweeting, they thought it must be fine—and then it snowballs from there.”
Dothan Police Chief Steve Parrish has called Carroll a “loon” with “an agenda.” But the report has coaxed a renewed focus on the goings-on within the Dothan police force. The department has faced a pair of lawsuits over the past few years alleging racial discrimination, including one from Keith Gray, the first and, until recently, only black lieutenant on the force. In June, a district judge refused to toss Gray’s discrimination suit, noting that Parrish had not only named his son after a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and decorated his office with Confederate memorabilia, but also that “[s]everal other city police officers were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.”
Still, the controversy tosses the spotlight back, onto Carroll and his credentials. Carroll has stood by his claims, saying he’s shuttled the documents over to the Department of Justice, and will drip them out slowly over the next six months. His purported reasons for hanging on to the documents center largely on concerns about proper vetting. But none of the language at Henry County Report has been changed to reflect the discrepancy between claims and documents—and won’t, apparently, so long as Carroll and his associates still have documents to publish.
Still he pushes on, pushes out testimonials, pushes the line that, in southern Alabama, police—led by a man draping his office in Confederate memory—have spent nearly two decades rampaging against black youth.
“I have an awful thesis,” Carroll grumbled, “and you might think this is totally nuts, but the narrative in law enforcement community is: Give us money and training, and we can screen out the bad apples. But you’re wrong. The system was unconsciously designed as a very good host for deadly virus—and that virus is corruption.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Carroll said he has wanted to uproot corruption at the Dothan Police Department for years. He only referred to corruption where he lives, rather than the police department specifically.