VALLEY, Ala. (WIAT) – One of the officers who came to arrest Martha Menefield, an 82-year-old black woman, for failing to pay a $77 garbage bill told her not to cry.
The officer slapped her on the back, she said. She was already handcuffed.
“Don’t cry, Ms. Martha,” she recalled his words. “He kind of whispered to me, ‘Don’t cry.'”
When two officers pulled up outside their home in Valley, Alabama on Sunday, Menefield didn’t know why they were there. She said the officers – one white, one black – got out of their squad car and approached her home. One of the officers said they were here to arrest her for not paying her garbage bill.
Menefield just laughed. She really thought the officer was joking.
He didn’t move.
“You’re not joking?” she remembered asking him. It wasn’t him. He was there to arrest her for not paying $77.80. She thought the bill was already paid, she said Thursday afternoon as she sat in her porch rocking chair, “but they said that wasn’t the case.”
Menefield said officers told her to handcuff her. She put her hands behind her back. The front is enough, they told her.
Menefield slowed as she told the story. She stretched her arms out in front of her. “And the cuffs,” she said, and her eyes swelled with tears. “They are so heavy.”
When the officer told her not to cry, Menefield looked back at him.
“How would you feel if they came and arrested your grandma?” she asked the officer. He didn’t answer.
“I’m just glad my grandkids weren’t here to see that,” Menefield said, his voice shaking. “That would have upset her. I was so ashamed. And it bothered me.”
On Tuesday, the Valley Police Chief defended the arrest in a post on the city’s social media account.
While officers have discretionary powers on “certain matters,” the boss argued, executing a warrant signed by a judge “is not one of them.”
“City of Valley Code Enforcement officers issued a subpoena to Ms. Menefield in August 2022 for failure to pay for garbage services during the months of June, July and August,” Chief Mike Reynolds’ statement said. “Prior to issuing the subpoena, Code Enforcement made several attempts to telephone Ms. Menefield and reach her personally at her place of residence. When no contact could be made, a door hanger was left in her apartment. The hanger contained information about the reason for the visit, as well as a name and phone number for her to call. The citation told Ms Menefield that she was due to appear in court in relation to this case on September 7, 2022. When she failed to appear in court, an arrest warrant was issued for late payment.”
On Thursday, Menefield said she never received a summons to appear in court. She said that if her garbage bill hadn’t been paid, her garbage can should have just been taken and her pickup should have been suspended. But arresting her, she said, was unfair and unnecessary.
“I was upset because I didn’t know why they would come and arrest me,” she said.
Menefield grew up in West Point, Alabama, in a middle-class family. Her father painted houses and her mother was a cook.
“I had a good family,” she says. “My mother and father were good people. I didn’t have to worry about anything.”
She had one daughter, Neketti Tucker, who now resides in Georgia. Professionally, Menefield had been a caretaker for the elderly and later for children.
Menefield has lived in the same house in Valley for almost 30 years. The age of the house shows, but also their care. There is no clutter. Everything has its place. Her grandchildren’s artwork papers the walls and mantelpiece.
Her water has been on and off for some time due to plumbing problems, she said. As of Thursday, she did not have access to running water.
“I like to cook,” she said, walking into her kitchen. “And I like cleaning. But I had to borrow water from neighbors and that’s embarrassing.”
Menefield wore a simple pink shirt and pastel tie-die leggings. Her daughter said she’s been having some memory problems lately, but by Thursday afternoon it wasn’t showing at all. She was a proud, thoughtful, caring woman – that much was obvious.
Menefield’s daughter, Neketti Tucker, soon arrived at her home. She’s less outspoken than her mother, more hesitant about an out-of-town journalist parachuting in from Birmingham. She had read about her loved one in the headlines, but no journalist had reached her or her mother.
Tucker said failure to pay a garbage bill should never be considered a crime.
“This is not a criminal act,” Tucker said. “That’s civilized, if anything.”
What’s more, Tucker said, several people have now attempted to pay her mother’s bill but have been told by staff they can’t do it.
Menefield said she wasn’t at Valley Jail long but believes she should never have been there to begin with.
“I was in a little cage-like thing at the police station,” she said. “And I said, ‘You all put me in this cage? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
Since her arrest, Menefield has thought deeply about God’s role in her life.
“I questioned God a little bit,” she said. “I guess because I was so upset. I had a daycare here for eight years, and I’ve asked the Lord. I say, ‘Why has this happened to me as many times as I have done to people, Lord?’ I paid my tithing every Sunday. I led to the church. I was just asking. Something is just not right.”
After completing their impromptu tour, Menefield reclined in a white rocking chair not far from her front door.
A garbage truck drove past her house. A Southerner in particular, Menefield waved politely, pain still on her face. She is surprised when they slow down at their can and empty the trash. The workers quickly emptied the garbage and moved on.
“I just don’t know what else to say,” she whispered.