VALLEY, Ala. – One of the officers who came to arrest Martha Menefield, an 82-year-old Black woman, for failure to pay a $77 trash bill, told her not to cry.
The officer had tapped her on the back, she told WIAT. She was already in handcuffs.
“Don’t cry, Ms. Martha,” she recalled him saying. “He kind of whispered it to me: ‘Don’t cry.’”
When two officers pulled up outside her 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 patrol car and approached her home. One of the officers said they were there to arrest her for failure to pay her trash bill.
Menefield just laughed. She genuinely thought the officer was joking.
He didn’t budge.
“You’re not kidding?” she recalled asking him. He wasn’t. He was there to arrest her for failure to pay $77.80. She thought the bill had already been paid, she said Thursday afternoon, sitting on her front porch’s rocking chair, “but they said it hadn’t.”
Menefield said the officers told her they would have to place her in handcuffs. She put her hands behind her back. The front will do, they told her.
Menefield slowed as she told the story. She held her arms out in front her. “And the cuffs,” she said, her eyes swelling with tears. “They’re 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 grandmama?” she asked the officer. He didn’t respond.
“I’m just happy my grandkids weren’t here to see that,” Menefield said, her voice shaking. “That would have upset them. I was so ashamed. And it’s been bothering me.”
On Tuesday, Valley’s chief of police defended the arrest in a post on the city’s social media account.
While officers can use discretionary judgement on “certain matters,” the chief argued, executing an arrest warrant signed by a magistrate “is not one of them.”
“City of Valley Code Enforcement Officers issued Ms. Menefield a citation in August of 2022 for non-payment for trash services for the months of June, July, and August,” Chief Mike Reynolds’ statement said.
“Prior to issuing the citation, Code Enforcement tried to call Ms. Menefield several times and attempted to contact her in person at her residence. When contact could not be made, a door hanger was left at her residence. The hanger contained information on the reason for the visit and a name and contact phone number for her to call. The citation advised Ms. Menefield that she was to appear in court on September 7, 2022, in reference to this case. A warrant for Failure to Pay-Trash was issued when she did not appear in court.”
On Thursday, Menefield said she never received any notice to appear in court. She said that if her trash bill had not been paid, her trash can should’ve simply been taken and her pickup suspended. But arresting her, she said, was unjust 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, and lived in a middle class family. Her dad painted homes, and her mother was a cook.
“I had a good family,” she said. “My mom and daddy were good people. I didn’t have to worry about nothing.”
She had one daughter, Neketti Tucker, who now lives in Georgia. For work, Menefield had been a caretaker for older folks and, later, for children.
Menefield has lived in the same house in Valley for nearly 30 years. The home’s age shows, but so does her care. There’s no clutter. Everything has its place. Her grandchildren’s art papers the walls and the mantlepiece.
Because of plumbing issues, her water has been turned off and on for a while now, she said. On Thursday, she had no access to running water.
“I like to cook,” she said, walking into her kitchen. “And I like to clean. But I’ve been having 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 had some memory problems recently, but on Thursday afternoon, it didn’t show at all. She was a proud, thoughtful, caring woman — that much was apparent.
Menefield’s daughter, Neketti Tucker, soon arrived at her home. She’s less open than her mother, more hesitant of an out-of-town journalist parachuting in from Birmingham. She’d been reading about her loved one in the headlines, but no journalist had reached her or her mother.
Tucker said that failure to pay a trash bill should never be considered a crime.
“This isn’t a criminal act,” Tucker said. “This is civil, if anything.”
What’s more, Tucker said, is that multiple people have now tried to pay her mother’s bill, but they’ve been told by staff they can’t do so.
Menefield said she wasn’t in the Valley Jail for long, but believes she should’ve never been there to begin with.
“I was in a little cage-like thing at the police station,” she said. “And I said, ‘Y’all put me in this cage? You ought to be ashamed of yourself.’”
In the time since her arrest, Menefield has been thinking deeply about God’s role in her life.
“I’ve been questioning God a little bit,” she said. “I guess cause I’ve been so upset. I had a daycare here for eight years, and I’ve been asking the Lord. I say, ‘Why did this happen to me as much as I’ve done for people, Lord?’ I’ve paid my tithes every Sunday. I ushered at church. I was just questioning. Something’s just not right.”
Her impromptu tour complete, Menefield sat back on a white rocking chair not far from her front door.
A garbage truck rode by her home. A Southerner before all else, Menefield waved politely, the hurt still settled on her face. She’s surprised when they slow down by her can and empty the trash. The workers quickly dumped the waste and moved on.
“I just don’t know what else to say,” she whispered.