The Ugly War Between a White Police Chief and a Black Mayor in the Deep South
Tarrant, Alabama, has been gripped by a saga that some say reflects the rise of a ruthless politician and others see as the last gasp of a white power structure that won’t let go.
When Wayman Newton found out last week about the warrant for his arrest in the town that elected him its first Black mayor, he wasn’t surprised.
Ever since Newton, 40, took office after winning his election in Tarrant, Alabama—population 7,000—by nearly 40 percentage points last year, a small minority of mostly white residents and city leaders have had it out for him, he told The Daily Beast.
They’ve blocked him from making what he and some locals describe as needed changes to the police department in a city mostly comprised of Black and Latino residents, he said.
Newton said the opposition reached its apex last week, when Dennis Reno, the white former chief of police in Tarrant, accused the mayor of assaulting him during a conversation in Newton’s office a day after his swearing-in back in November.
During the meeting, Newton said, he confronted Reno—who was still chief at the time—over what the mayor claimed was a longstanding practice of not hiring Black police officers in the city. He said Reno told him he hadn’t hired Black officers because they weren’t qualified, and couldn’t be trusted to police their own. The conversation evolved into a shouting match, Newton said.
“At a certain point, I had to remind him that I was the mayor and kicked him out of my office,” he told The Daily Beast.
Reno did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. But according to AL.com, he told police last week that Newton slammed a door on his arm and injured him seriously enough that he now needs physical therapy. Newton was arrested on June 16 and charged with third-degree assault, according to records from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, which declined to elaborate on the charges prior to publication.
In an interview, the mayor denied ever slamming the door on Reno’s arm.
For his part, Reno denied any pattern of discriminatory hiring. “I only worked for him for two hours. He never gave me a chance,” he told AL.com of the mayor, adding that he had told Newton, “I don’t hire off race, I hire off qualifications.”
When he was released, the young mayor posted security-camera videos on Facebook that appear to show Reno leaving the mayor’s office and calmly closing the door on his way out. Other videos, apparently from the next day, show him using the left arm he allegedly injured to carry files and climb out of his pickup truck. Newton called the assault charge—in connection with an argument that happened seven months ago—a “stunt,” while Reno has claimed Newton is only releasing part of the footage.
Coming on the heels of a year of racial justice protests, literal dismantling of Confederate monuments, and calls for police reform, the bizarre, small-town, Deep South saga either reflects the rise of a ruthless politician one rival likened to Adolf Hitler, or the last gasp of a white power structure that won’t let go.
It just depends on who you ask.
“My election kind of represented a transition from the old guard to the new,” Newton told The Daily Beast. “If you actually go and talk to most people that actually live here in the city, they actually like the things that I’m doing.”
Deanna Taylor is one of those people. The white 25-year-old said she supports Newton because he has made an attempt to bring needed youth activities to the city, and has helped the police department make great strides. Taylor, who does not buy the assault charge, said her boyfriend is Black, and that for many in the Black community, it has been an open secret that the Tarrant Police Department had no Black police officers and would routinely pull over Black drivers and find excuses to search their cars.
“We would have friends and family that wouldn’t come to Tarrant because they were known for it,” Taylor said.
Lt. Phillip George of the Tarrant Police Department declined to comment about any alleged policy of not hiring Black officers, as well as the alleged targeting of Black drivers. But he told The Daily Beast that the police department employs 18 officers. He said four of those officers are Black, and that all were hired after Reno resigned from his position as chief of police on Jan. 1.
George also shared department data with The Daily Beast that showed how, in 2019, Black drivers represented about 58 percent of those stopped by police, and about 55 percent of stopped drivers in 2020. Those figures are only slightly higher than the 53 percent of the population Black folks make up, according to recent census records.
Meanwhile, white drivers made up about 30 percent of stops in 2019, and 27 percent of stops in 2020, numbers that are a bit lower than their 34 percent share of the population.
Although the numbers don’t tell a damning tale, Newton said, “Tarrant historically has had a problem.”
“I actually question the legitimacy of those numbers like I question the legitimacy of the hiring practices of the previous police chief,” he added.
Newton said he helped solidify an internal affairs office to keep track of any alleged police misconduct. George confirmed that changes to the department made it so that one officer would be in charge of the internal affairs department, rather than a previous system that would tap an available detective or lieutenant to handle complaints.
Tarrant resident Waynette Bonham said things seemed to be changing for the better under Newton. The Black 41-year-old claimed the mayor has also made other positive changes in the city, such as starting a farmer’s market, providing greater access to the community center, and feeding the poorest city residents.
She argued that it was clear from watching “embarrassing” city council meetings every week that he has some enemies. “Mayor Newton is trying hard for the citizens of Tarrant,” she said. “But it’s the people that hold office in Tarrant that’s keeping him from moving forward.”
She called out the longest-serving councilman, Tommy Bryant, in particular. “It’s like now all he’s doing is trying to oppose anything Mayor Newton is doing. And Mayor Newton is trying to correct the things that had been so bad about the city of Tarrant from the previous administration—like not having Black officers.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bryant pushed back against any problems with race that the city and police department may have faced in the past. Bryant, who is white, also said his opposition to Newton has nothing to do with his race but rather stemmed from Newton trampling on the established ways of doing things and instilling a culture of fear among current and city employees because of his temper.
“He is a dictatorial person,” Bryant, 76, told The Daily Beast of Newton. “Reminds me of Adolf Hitler.”
Bryant has served as a councilman for 12 years, and said he’s lived in Tarrant for most of his life. He accused Newton of failing to fill important vacant positions in the city, like the city clerk and the chief of police. (Newton said the reason the city doesn’t have a clerk or police chief is because Bryant and other holdover council members have opposed his choices and instead want to install someone sympathetic to them.)
Bryant also blamed the mayor for firing people without the input of other city officials, such as when he axed Jason Rickels, the former fire department chief in Tarrant, after Rickels was arrested in Georgia in March. According to AL.com, Rickels, who is white, was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a gun after he allegedly pulled a gun on a Black realtor and photographer at a home he owned in Roswell, Georgia.
Brian Steel, Rickels’ attorney, told AL.com the charges were baseless. Neither Rickels nor Steel responded to a request for comment for this story.
Bryant wondered why Newton wasn’t putting himself on leave given the fact that he fired Rickels for his charge. “Two different standards for two different people,” he said.
The councilman went on to say longtime city employees were in a “hostile situation” under Newton’s leadership, and accused the mayor of harassing multiple employees, including himself. He described one meeting a few months back where he said Newton tried to instigate a fight with him. He even claimed that he wore a bulletproof vest to council meetings a few times because he feared for his safety.
Bryant said he isn’t opposed to changes in the city, but believes Newton is going about things in an aggressive way. “I know how things are supposed to be done,” he said. “I don’t mind changes, if they’re done like they’re supposed to be done. He has no regard for the proper procedures to do anything.”
Laura Horton, 73, who served on the city council for 20 years before losing her re-election bid in 2020, echoed Bryant’s assessment of Newton. “It is like he thinks he’s God and he rules this city,” she said.
Newton denied harassing any city employees. In response to the alleged instance of misconduct that Bryant described, in which he said Newton challenged him to a fight, Newton said, “I’m a 40-year-old Black man with an Ivy League degree and I graduated from a top-10 law school. I’m more than qualified to be the mayor of Tarrant. Do you really think that I would say something like that at a public meeting?”
He said the accusations about the supposed threats on Bryant’s life were not worth responding to. Newton only acknowledged using “foul language” one time in private with Bryant, after he said the councilman called him “boy.” “If you know anything about the history of the South and race relations, to have some 75-year-old man calling a 40-year-old Black man a boy is very insulting,” Newton said.
In response, Bryant claimed that he called Newton “little boy,” and that Newton had been trying to instigate him—and that he meant the comment only to “turn the tide” on the situation.
“I was trying to piss him off to see if he’d come after me,” Bryant said.
Freddie Rubio, the city attorney of Tarrant, declined to comment on any formal complaints of harassment against Mayor Newton, and did not respond to a subsequent request for comment about whether procedures had been followed in firing employees. “I do not represent the Mayor, Councilor Bryant or any other employee in its individual capacity,” he said. “I don’t take sides between politicians.”
For his part, Newton said most of the criticism by Bryant, Horton, and others who have opposed him is due to the fact that the city used to be run in a way that gave them more decision-making power than he believes they should have—and led to a cycle of stagnation. For example, he said, the firing of Rickels is something that he didn’t need approval for. “I’m in charge of employees,” he told The Daily Beast.
He called himself the “CEO of the city,” and said Bryant and others have unfortunately been put off by the new structure he’s installed. “My thing is, I was elected to run the city. I take that job and responsibility very seriously. And that’s what I’ve been doing,” he said.
Joel Kimbrough, who is white, has lived in Tarrant his whole life and owns a printing business there. He supports Newton, does not believe the assault claim, and said he believes the real issue has to do with the changing demographics of the city over the past 30 years, which is now largely minority but was once predominantly white.
He said too many longtime residents of the city long for a version back in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was a different place. “We have lived in the past,” he said. “That has done a tremendous amount of damage to the city, because no one has had their eye on the future.”
Kimbrough, 65, said the city has a lot of potential and a significant budget given its size. But he said it has been plagued by a lack of investment, empty storefronts, and what he calls a lack of foresight.
Newton, he said, has been a boon to the city because he recognizes its potential. “He can look and see what it could be without the historical hindsight of what it was,” he said.
But he said people like Bryant and Reno are, in effect, stuck in the past: “They’re longing for a time that was.”