Neighborhood leaders are split over whether the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) is doing enough to help reduce crime in the city.
“We know law enforcement is a joke, for real,” said Debra Mays, president of the West End Manor Neighborhood Association. “… I think that what police are for is mainly to write [police] reports. … I guess, if someone is arguing, you can call them for that, and [you can call them to] write the reports for wrecks, traffic citations, or whatever.”
Vivian Stark, president of the Collegeville Neighborhood Association in North Birmingham, disagreed.
“I think they’ve been handling it very well,” she said. “… I think they’re just like everybody else—they’re just trying to figure this out. I don’t think [the police] really know what’s going on.”
Homicides in Birmingham have increased 80 percent since 2014. And several widely-reported murders of young black males have raised concern among elected officials, law enforcement, and community leaders.
Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper has spoken numerous times about what he believes are the reasons behind the current spike in violence. Most recently, he was on a panel for a Crime and Economic Town Hall Meeting at the YMCA on Red Lane Road in Roebuck.
‘Deal With Families’
“We’ve got to deal with families because successful families [lead to] successful neighborhoods,” he told the more than 200 people in attendance. “You know why young men join street gangs? Because street gangs give them what their families don’t. Street gangs give them identity; families should do that. Street gangs give them purpose; families should do that. If they mess up, street gangs will discipline them. If they do well, street gangs will reward them. Street gangs have dinner together. They are doing things the family should be doing.”
“That’s why we have to intervene early. Successful buildings don’t make successful neighborhoods—people make successful communities and good neighborhoods.”
Evanne Gibson, president of the Germania Park Neighborhood Association in West Birmingham, believes the police can do more.
“In areas where you know there’s a high concentration [of crime], more officers need to be there. If we know where the drug dealers are, more officers need to be there,” she said. “[There should be] more control in those areas.”
While there are good police officers, “there’s always a bad apple somewhere,” said Kevin Powe, president of the Acipco-Finley Neighborhood Association in North Birmingham. In his opinion, the police department’s bad apples “could work better [by] caring more for the community and [doing] more for the betterment [of the community]. [They should do something] other than just have a job to get a paycheck.”
“I’ve seen it myself,” Powe said. “People make complaints about housing. The police stop by the housing and chat it up like it’s just a regular day, like they’re not at work. You never know what the police officer is telling somebody or [when they’re] looking out for somebody.”
‘Need More Police Visibility’
André Brown, president of the Fountain Heights neighborhood in North Birmingham, said, “I think we need more police visibility, more patrols. I feel like if the police are seen more, it might deter those guys from getting into all types of trouble, especially the shootings that have been going on.
“I feel unsafe a lot of times because I have young ones, and I work in a school system where I see these kids every day. Some of these kids just need to be shown that there’s a better way than the action that they’re taking when they take another person’s life.”
Marine Coleman, president of the Tuxedo community in West Birmingham, said her neighbors also feel the police aren’t visible—particularly, because there’s no police station in the area.
“We had a police station in Ensley, and they moved it to Five Points,” she said. “[The police] are over in other communities. They don’t attend our neighborhood meetings regularly, like they should, so we can voice our opinions and come up with a plan to work with them in the neighborhood.”
Germania Park’s Gibson said police have attended some of the meetings in her community.
“They ask us questions about what [they] should do and what the neighbors would need,” she said, “and then they go and do what they want to do.”
Police Aren’t At Fault
Several neighborhood leaders said police are not at fault.
George McCall, Ensley neighborhood president, said, “The city cannot be everywhere that these kids are killing one another.”
Veronica Edwards-Johnson, president of the Powderly community in Southwest Birmingham, said, “We can’t totally put [all the blame] on the police’s backs.”
She added that changing the culture of violence must happen “in the homes, in schools, and in the churches.”
“It’s a city problem, but it’s just not happening the way people think it is,” Edwards-Johnson said. “Every [story I read about violence] is about someone disrespecting someone over a girlfriend, or someone saying something someone else doesn’t like, or something related to a family domestic altercation. …That’s something you just can’t stop, when it’s behind closed doors.”
“The police department is not going to be in the house. We’re not going to be there unless somebody calls us to intervene,” the chief said. “Last year our increase in homicides was driven by family-related homicides: domestic violence, parents killing kids, kids killing parents. We went from nine family-related homicides in 2015 to 19 in 2016, so the numbers doubled.”
Roper, who is from the Fountain Heights community, said his department is greatly understaffed and he is constantly looking to hire more officers.
“If you know some men and women who would like to join us, we need them,” he said. “We graduated a class [Friday, March 17] that [had] 24 new officers, that’s not nearly enough. As of today, we’re showing 108 police officers (needed),” he said.
“In one week, depending on the weather our phones ring anywhere from 13,000-15,000 times. Even though we may have seen a decrease in population we haven’t seen a decrease in calls,” Roper said. “So, we’re not asking for extra police officers, we’re talking about filling the [vacancies] we have.”