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Why Deadly Street Racing in Birmingham May be Tough to End

From left: Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin; Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond and Jefferson County DA Danny Carr. (Ryan Michaels, The Birmingham Times)

By Ryan Michaels

The Birmingham Times

Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond and Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr on Tuesday joined Mayor Randall Woodfin to address incidents of exhibition driving, which has been involved in two deaths of teenagers in the city in less than a month.

Birmingham Police Department (BPD) is “working hard to combat” exhibition driving but that “it’s hard to be everywhere at once,” Thurmond said.

“When [residents] do these things on private property, it makes it even harder for us to have enforcement action. As the mayor said, we’ve contacted several of our state legislators to see if they can get legislation passed to hopefully help us combat this issue throughout the state of Alabama,” Thurmond said during a City Hall press conference.

On Sunday, five were shot during an incident, including 19-year-old Ja’Kia Winston who died on the scene. Police said a 23-year-old was taken into custody a short time after the shooting and is in the custody of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office held on a $1.5 million bond.

On July 24, 14-year-old Kamari Deshaun Adams was killed when he was struck during a race on a West Birmingham road.

After 19-year-old Winston was killed, Woodfin released a statement calling for, among other measures, increased penalties to drivers engaging in exhibition driving and for people encouraging the behavior. Woodfin said the city would work with state legislators to “obtain tougher laws to end this public menace,” he said.

His administration will push for penalties that include a license suspension of one year for anyone caught as an exhibition driver; the vehicle impounded and the  driver fined $1,000 for the first offense and $2,000 for the second offense. Anyone participating as passengers and encouraging such actions should also be held accountable, he said.

Despite the weekend tragedy, Thurmond said he doesn’t believe people will stop the dangerous activity unless more aggressive policing measures are granted to the city through state legislation.

“I don’t think, until we start taking people’s cars and making them see a judge before they can get them back, and stiffen the fines and the penalties, I don’t think things will change, unfortunately,” the chief said.

Thurmond said officers don’t have time to stay in one place during their shifts.

“They tried to get out to those areas, but they can’t sit in…one particular spot for an entire shift, and they have other areas to patrol, residential and business areas. They’re subject to call, so there’s a lot of things that keep them very busy throughout their shifts, so it’s very frustrating,” Thurmond said.

Woodfin recommended private business owners and church leaders secure their own parking lots to cut down on the activity.

“You don’t necessarily have to wait on [a] BPD call when something happens. You can take preventive measures, so people can’t use your parking lot when it’s not in use during business hours,” Woodfin said.

BPD is currently working with the Birmingham Department of Transportation to place temporary speed bumps in hot spot areas for exhibition driving, according to Thurmond.

Carr on Tuesday said that though current law “doesn’t have a lot of teeth,” deaths caused by exhibition driving can still have “lifelong ramifications” for the drivers responsible.

“We all understand the ramifications of when you decide to use a gun and take the life of another person, but let me just tell you also, about exhibition driving, and I call it reckless driving basically. If you partake in that activity, and you ultimately hit someone who’s a bystander, who’s just standing there, and they die, that is a murder charge. It is called reckless murder,” Carr said.

“Understand that when you decide to get in a car, and you decide to drive recklessly, and you decide to have a total disregard for human life, then there can be serious consequences if ultimately, that person dies because of your reckless activity,” he added.

City Council

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, multiple Councilors also spoke on the matter.

Councilor Hunter Williams, former chair of the public safety committee, said he would also like to see Alabama get laws with more “teeth” and emphasized the dangers of exhibition driving. “It might seem harmless, and you might not think that it affects people around you, but it can directly impact your life, especially when someone accidentally loses their life, and you spend the rest of your life in state prison,” Williams said.

Councilor Valerie Abbott said she often hears drivers “roaring up and down” I-65 late into the night.

“You can hear them roaring from Homewood to downtown Birmingham, and they do it really, really fast, so you can tell that they are exceeding the speed limit. If I was out there with them, I would be frightened because my little car just couldn’t take a hit from something like that,” Abbott said.

Since the Alabama Legislature does not reconvene into its regular session until next year, Council President Pro Tem Crystal Smitherman said the city is looking for immediate responses to the issue.

“I don’t want the public to think that we’re just like sitting back. We don’t think this is okay. We’re just trying to think of a good solution for making sure that we’re effective because a lot of times you can jump the gun and do something and put something out, and then it can make the fire even worse,” Smitherman said.

Council President Wardine Alexander took time to refute comments from those defending the exhibition driving.

“One of [the things I’ve heard] is, ‘We ain’t out here killing people.’ Yes, you are. Two people are dead. ‘We know what we’re doing.’ No, you don’t. It’s not safe. ‘The city of Birmingham should have a safe place for us.’ We have no obligation to promote reckless and senseless activity,” Alexander said.