By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
At about 1:45 a.m. one day in the first week of August of this year, 25-year-old Jonathan Devon Glenn was found shot, inside a vehicle in Birmingham’s Fairview neighborhood. In less than an hour, he was pronounced dead.
Up until that night, according to Fairview Neighborhood Association President Adlai Trone, 15 months had passed without a single homicide in the neighborhood. The lack of violent crime in the neighborhood was not simply luck, he said.
There was a reason that neighborhood was able to go more than a year without a homicide. “You’ve got to get on the ground, you have to engage, and you have to make it a holistic approach,” Trone said. “You have to make individuals feel like they’re part of the neighborhood, not that the neighborhood is against them. You have to get everyone to understand that we’re all on the same page. You have to engage the youth and make them feel like they’re part of something.”
Engaging his neighborhood has included everything from hosting Easter egg hunts, neighborhood cookouts, food giveaways, and neighborhood walks. A big part is that people need to be shown care, Trone said.
“People want to be loved on. People want to be understood. People want to be heard. … When you don’t have that, you don’t hear that, and we don’t know that, I think it stems different results.”
This year, Birmingham so far has seen 117 homicides through Tuesday Oct. 11 according to AL.com. Homicides in the city are up 33.3 percent this year versus the same time last year, according to the Birmingham Police Department. Currently, the city is on pace to reach nearly 150 homicides. The highest number in recent memory was 141 in 1991, according to AL.com’s Carol Robinson.
With those numbers seeming to increase daily, AL.com and The Birmingham Times will collaborate on a series of reports focusing on the contributing factors that may have fueled the high rate of homicides in 2022 and magnifying the voices of those who are affected by violence or working in areas to reduce some of the crime.
Additional reporting and storytelling will be provided on a biweekly or monthly basis, covering topics that include but are not limited to domestic violence, education, guns, and accountability. This partnership will also look at solutions offered by those who work daily in this space, including law enforcement, community activists, and mental health professionals.
Lessons From Fairview
In addition to neighborhood engagement, Trone said his partnership with Felicia Mearon, crime prevention officer (CPO) for the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) West Precinct, means the neighborhood has strong communication with law enforcement.
Trone said there have been many instances in which he was able to speak on behalf of residents to Mearon.
For example, he recalled, “One morning, I saw a young lady on the corner, and she had a domestic violence relationship issue. I got [Mearon] on the phone, and she gave me options for resolving the situation. The young lady didn’t want to have any kind of dealings with the police department, but she was willing to communicate to me.”
After Trone shared the woman’s story with Mearon, assistance was provided without going through the regular law enforcement channels, which allowed everyone to avoid escalating the situation.
Mearon, who has worked out of the West Precinct for about 18 years, said her job, which is actually a civilian role, is about connecting with residents.
“I build those relationships by giving pertinent information that will help our residents stay safe,” she said. “[I] help them address their concerns, and then I speak on behalf of the residents for the police.”
Much of what Mearon talks about with residents is done in confidence.
“It takes time, working and talking with people, and just reassuring them that the information they give to me stays with me,” she said. “I don’t even let the detective know who [the person is], unless [they] have given me authorization to do that.”
Costella Terrell, president of the Rising-West Princeton Neighborhood Association, said communication among fellow residents is something that’s lacking in her neighborhood and within society as a whole.
“A lot of neighbors don’t even know each other’s names. They just live on the same block. They just recognize people in passing. They know nothing about each other. They know nothing about each other’s lives,” Terrell said.
When people in her community see something potentially criminal happening, they are often too afraid to work it out themselves.
“Even the men are afraid to say anything to these young people, and that’s a problem,” Terrell said. “A man can no longer step to a younger man and speak to him from a point of experience. … That young man gets an attitude and, next thing you know, decides he wants to shoot up [the older man’s] house.”
The proliferation of guns in communities has also contributed to isolation among residents.
“Everybody is locked up inside of their homes. I’ve spoken to many people in my own neighborhood that no longer sit on their front porches for fear of gunplay. … As a senior citizen, I literally can’t sit out on my porch and talk to my neighbor across the street without picking up the phone anymore. Well, we used to do that all the time,” said Terrell, 68.
“Those types of things are not happening in our neighborhoods anymore because of guns,” she added.
Over the last two years, city and police leadership have said they need residents to help curb violent crime in the city and solve open cases.
Fear keeps her community from doing much to stop violence, Terrell said.
“[City and police leaders] are asking the communities and the neighborhoods to help them out because we are the ones who live in these communities, but people are afraid,” she said. “People are actually afraid of their own neighbors, and it shouldn’t be that way.”
Birmingham City Councilor LaTonya Tate, chair of the city’s public safety committee, said it can make sense that people are fearful, given that some residents are recklessly firing guns in the city.
“As a city, and as a whole, one would be fearful…I think people don’t want to be fearful when they go out and travel around town. I think people want to feel as safe as possible, but when you have people that are totally disregarding life…then that becomes an issue,” said Tate, who represents District 9, which encompasses northwest Birmingham, including neighborhoods such as Acipco-Finley, North Birmingham and Druid Hills.
Disrepair and Disrespect
Becky Wallace, president of the Roebuck Neighborhood Association, said she believes disrepair in many city neighborhoods contributes to the proliferation of violence.
“There are so many vacant properties and [overgrown] lots,” she said. “People move into beautiful neighborhoods and just let their property go to crap.”
Recently, Wallace said, she had someone from the city come out to inspect a resident’s property and was yelled at with foul language by the resident after the city inspector left. That sort of conduct within the neighborhood promotes disrespect, which can lead to violence.
“Somebody’s standing in the front yard cussing you out, the wrong thing is said, the wrong thing is done, and who knows what could happen? … People nowadays are crazy. They’ll pull a gun out and shoot you over grass clippings,” Wallace said.
She continued, “When the kids see their parents disrespecting other neighbors, disrespecting the neighborhood, they grow up with disrespect. … Lack of respect is the problem. People don’t respect each other.”
“[Without that respect], you grow up and you get in the gang, you get a gun, and you go around killing folks because you have no respect for life, you have no respect for other people’s right to live the way they want to.”
Many neighborhood officers interviewed for this article said there was a time when police officers would come to each of their community meetings to give updates on crime in the areas, but that stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with the return of in-person meetings, police haven’t been present and some of the gatherings, residents say.
Officers who attended neighborhood meetings report to their supervisors the issues presented in the meetings, and the supervisor relays information to the shift and his or her superiors.
Terrell said she was told her group no longer has an officer at meetings because the BPD is short of staff and her community is designated as a low-crime area.
“[I was told that officers] were allocated on an as-needed basis, … and they didn’t feel that we needed an assigned officer,” Terrell said.
Sgt. Monica Law, public information officer for the BPD, said that a given area’s beat officer may be off work at the time of a neighborhood meeting.
“Patrol is the primary priority for the safety of citizens who call with emergency needs, … [so] call volume at the time of meetings could be one factor [keeping an] officer from attending a meeting,” Law said, adding that neighborhood officers should report officer absences to their respective precinct and/or CPO.
Wayne Wilson, vice president of the Ensley Highlands Neighborhood Association, said police officers haven’t been present at his meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic, which he finds surprising because he feels his Ensley community is one of a few where most of the crime in District 8 occurs.
AL.com reported last year that three communities with the most homicides between 2017 and 2020 in Birmingham were all on the western side of town: Five Points West, West End, and Ensley.
“I know [it’s true] because I sit around and hear gunshots. … It’s just ridiculous,” said Wilson, who added that he is “fed up” with the amount of violent crime occurring in the city and in his neighborhood.
“I get tired of waking up in the morning, looking at the news, and seeing that somebody’s been killed, that there’s an incident where a little child was shot. … That’s just ridiculous. It’s ridiculous!”
Wilson was particularly upset by an April incident in which 46-year-old Veronica Joseph was shot and killed, along with two other potential victims of the same gunman, outside a home in the 1400 block of 33rd Street Ensley, just down the street from Wilson lives.
“You’re going to kill somebody who was the only somebody who [cared] about you,” Wilson said. “You’re going to kill your mother?”
In the past, Wilson said, he’s been familiar with beat officers patrolling his neighborhood, but there are no regular officers in Ensley Highlands now.
“We don’t have that anymore. …I used to know the beat officers, and I would talk to them or stop them on the street and say, ‘Hello’ or ‘How are you doing?’” he said.
BPD CPO Mearon cautioned that beat officers aren’t the only answer to crime reduction. Technology and more-involved residents are the path to safer neighborhoods.
“We just have to make the best that we can with the [officers] we have, use technology to try and fill in, and impress upon residents how important it is for them to stay involved with where they live,” she said.
Valencia King, president of the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association, said homicides have been taking a toll on her community because of how many lives just one homicide can affect.
“When you take one life, you really take several lives,” she said. “The life of the person who is killed is gone, the life of the person who committed the crime is gone, and their family members on both sides are suffering.”
King also emphasized what gun violence can do with quality of life in the city.
“[Residents] want to grow in a positive way, instead of a negative way. With a growing city, we want to grow in positive areas, not crime and illegal activity. We want to grow in new businesses, new housing, expanded schools and hospitals, in things that are positive that will make the community and the neighborhood a better place to live,” King said.
Previous articles part of the Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series on gun violence in the city