By Barnett Wright
The Birmingham Times
Homicides are up across America, and Birmingham is no different. Local law enforcement points out, however, that “total” violent crime in the Magic City was actually down 22 percent as of August 25, 2022, compared with last year, August 25, 2021. Still, homicides (up 21.8 percent) get all of the headlines and raise questions about whether more officers are needed to reduce the number of murders. Most would agree that it’s not solely the responsibility of police, but it is true that as crime has increased, the number of officers has not.
The number of police officers in Birmingham has declined 3.07 percent over the past five years, according to a review of city budgets, but the murders have not. Homicides in Birmingham five years ago were at 111. Through August 25 of this year, it was at 87, on pace to reach nearly 150. The highest number of Birmingham homicides in recent memory was 141 in 1991, according to AL.com’s Carol Robinson.
Beginning today and continuing through the end of the year, AL.com and The Birmingham Times Media Group will collaborate on a series of reports with a focus on 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.
The Fiscal Year (FY) in Birmingham begins on July 1 and ends on June 30, and here is the number of police officers in the city from FY2017 through FY2023
Former BPD Assistant Chief Allen Treadaway, who retired in 2020 after serving the department for 31 years, is among those who would like the city to increase the number of officers.
“We have to go out and recruit and hire officers, get the numbers up, … [and] you want to do it in a reasonable amount of time. We don’t have several years when we’re counting lives and violent crime is being perpetrated against our citizens,” he said. “We have got to do more to retain and attract officers to this profession.”
Treadaway, who is also an Alabama State Representative, said attracting police officers now is the toughest he’s ever seen.
“In my 30-plus years in law enforcement, we’ve never lived in a time where basically officers feel like targets have been put on their backs or the profession has been so demonized,” he said. “We have to look at it and go, ‘Hey, this [condemnation] has had a profound effect.’ People do not want to work in law enforcement. Of those who are in law enforcement, a large portion of them want out—and they’re getting out.”
Henry Irby, a retired 32-year veteran of the BPD, who is now chief in the embattled Brookside, Alabama, police department, agreed that recruitment is a challenge for police.
“Recruitment is low for everybody, and you have to be very creative [to attract officers],” he said. “Even with that, you don’t have a ton [of people] knocking down your door right now wanting to be law enforcement officers. We have to look at our community policing efforts. There is a lot of work to be done, but it can be done. We can’t give up on it. … We have to keep reaching out especially to our young people.”
One of the challenges in Birmingham is that the BPD hires officers through the Personnel Board of Jefferson County, and that can take time. In addition, applicants are not always available, say law enforcement officials.
Earlier this year, following a week when a high number of officers called in sick and there was a back-and-forth between representatives of police and the mayor’s office over pay, BPD Chief Scott Thurmond said he was aware of the personnel issues facing the department.
“We know we’re short. We’re doing everything we can to correct that. Some of it is beyond our control. There are not a lot of people lining up to be police officers,” Thurmond said in a story on AL.com.
Treadaway suggests that the city step “outside of the box” to recruit and retain officers. He applauded Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin for considering a program that provided incentives and bonuses for officers who stayed on the force for more than a year.
“That was a good move, but much more needs to be done across the state of Alabama and Jefferson County to recruit and bring folks in,” said Treadaway. “Let’s look at states that are offering incentives, bonuses, moving expenses [to hire police officers].”
For example, Baltimore police announced new hiring incentives including a $5,000 signing bonus to all those joining the department and another $1,000 per month to help with housing costs for new hires.
Locally, he mentioned another initiative he sponsored in the state legislature that allowed the BPD to rehire officers who have retired, as well as allow current officers eligible for retirement to separate from the department for just 45 days and return with a salary plus their pension. Under the new rehiring program, retired officers who rejoin the force will serve as full-time officers with full benefits
“It’s something I’ve worked on very hard,” Treadaway said. “A lot of our officers are being recruited away. The demand for law enforcement is great, but the resources are not.”
Updated at 2:20 a.m. on 9/1/2022 to clarify incentives and hires for Birmingham police.