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With Homicides Up, Birmingham Residents Have Advice for Acting Police Chief

Veronica Johnson, president of the Powderly Neighborhood Association. (FILE)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

Birmingham residents say Captain Scott Thurmond, appointed acting police chief last week to replace Patrick Smith who resigned, is the right man for the job in a city that has seen an increasing number of homicides, including the recent deaths of three Birmingham City Schools (BCS) students.

In 2021, Birmingham saw 132 homicides, 10 more than the 122 in 2020. So far in 2022, Birmingham Police Department (BPD) has begun nearly a dozen murder investigations including 18-year old De’Undray Nakil Haggard, who was a senior at A.H. Parker High School; 16-year-old Yasmine Wright, who was a junior at Wenonah High School and 17-year-old Javarius Reid, who was a junior at George Washington Carver High School, all killed in January alone.

David Eldridge, former president of the Ensley Highlands Neighborhood Association, said he is familiar with acting Chief Thurmond from the West precinct.

“We had random shooting just about every night, and [Thurmond] came, him and one of the officers and nipped it in the bud,” Eldridge said. “All of a sudden, [the shooting] stopped. [It] started back and then, the officers got it back under control.”

Former Chief Patrick Smith, left; Acting Chief, Scott Thurmond, right

In 2020, Thurmond, a 23-year veteran, formed a task force in Birmingham’s West Precinct which took “five to 10 guns off the streets,” per week, leading to a 25 percent decrease in the area’s crime, according to the city.

Leroy Lassiter, president of the Wylam Neighborhood Association, said he believes the new chief understands the importance of reducing crime in the city.

“It’s a planning operation…so I’m sure he knows that he has to do that, and he seemed like the guy that would recognize that,” Lassiter said.

Thurmond has worked up his way up from patrol officer to sergeant, and later, commander. Thurmond has also held leadership roles in the homicide and robbery divisions.

Veronica Johnson, president of the Powderly Neighborhood Association, said Thurmond’s experience is a plus.

“[Thurmond is] local, and he should have the knowledge, because he’s been in multiple different departments and the West Precinct is probably one of the best training spots in the city.”

What To Do

Residents also offered some suggestions for the acting chief or the person who is made permanent. For example, better partnership between police and communities.

Richard Harris, president of the South Pratt Neighborhood Association, said law enforcement “has to involve the citizenry in policing.”

“One thing that’s terribly lacking, from a neighborhood perspective, is involvement in the neighborhood by police officers,” said Harris, who added the lack of police at neighborhood meetings has been “very noticeable.”

Eldridge, in Ensley Highlands, said reducing the homicide rate is a matter of giving children opportunities and activities to keep them occupied, in addition to getting police involved with children.

“A lot of [the homicides] are related to people that know each other. This is not random people shooting at each other,” Eldridge said. “It’s people that know each other at some point…it’s pretty much hard for the police to stop it when these are people that know each other.”

Eldridge said conflict often starts on social media, and police should be there too, he said.

“Police need to step up their social media contact and figure out a way how they can tap into this . . . and figure out a way to interact with [perpetrators] on social media to cut off that pipeline,” Eldridge said.

Lassiter, in Wylam, said BPD officers need to crack down on criminals. “Let them know…that we are going to start to get tough on y’all…we’re not going to allow this, we’re not going to have it, and we’re going to do as much as we can to try to catch you if you do it,” Lassiter said.

Johnson, in Powderly, said there’s little that law enforcement can do to slow the rate of homicides in the city because many of them seem to happen “all over the place” and not in particular “hotspots.”

Better family/friend relationships and personal self-control would help curb violence, she said. “I don’t know if you could put anger management in the schools because this is not a specific age,” she said. “I do know that there are some things that could be done in the school system, to maybe re-educate people.”

Gun ownership also contributes to the high murder rate, Johnson said. Local government at all levels should focus their efforts on gun legislation, but Johnson said the sheer number of guns already in citizens’ hands makes that difficult.

“There’s just too much. The guns are just out there too much. I don’t know how to stop it, and then to stop selling them, they’re already out there,” she said, “so I guess we’d have to come up with new legislation to have better control.”

With Smith gone, some residents aren’t blaming him.

Gwen Webb, president of the Inglenook Neighborhood Association and a retired BPD officer, said the police can’t change many of the personal situations between city residents.

“When there is domestic violence going on inside of one home, and there is a tragedy that comes after that what could [Smith] have done about that situation?”

Webb said staffing and a lack of resources are significant problems for the department. According to a recent article from AL.com, the Fraternal Order of Police has claimed that BPD is short 114 patrol officers, 15 sergeants, five lieutenants and at least three captains.

“Instead of people talking about ‘defund the police,’ my cry is ‘fund the police more,’” Webb said, “so we can get more officers wanting to come to BPD.”