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Police Chief Weighs in on Causes and Solutions as Birmingham Homicides Reach Tragic Highs

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Then-Acting Birmingham Chief of Police Scott Thurmond speaks to press after a police-involved shooting of a suspect in a domestic violence incident. (AL.com)

By Carol Robinson | crobinson@al.com

This is another installment in a Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series on Gun Violence in the city.

Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond, a former homicide investigator and captain of the violence-plagued West Precinct, took the lead of the department this summer as the number of fatal shootings in the Magic City spiked.

Between Friday evening and Monday night alone, seven people died in Birmingham homicides.

So far this year, 104 people have been slain in the city.

The highest number of Birmingham homicides in recent memory was 141 in 1991. In 2011, there were only 57 homicides, the lowest in recent memory.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of seven lives in our city over the Labor Day weekend,” Thurmond said at a press conference today. “This is unacceptable and we will never normalize even the loss of one life in our city.”

Thurmond said the department in August launched “Operation Silent Night” with hopes of decreasing violence in the city.

“The operation deployed additional resources to the streets of Birmingham leading to numerous arrests and firearms that we seized. This is where the need for the community’s help and partnership with them,” Thurmond said.

“Our city is up against numerous individuals who do no mind firing an alarming number of rounds at one another from powerful weapons, also placing innocent community members in harm’s way….Everyone must play a part in changing this narrative,” Thurmond added.

“The most important role is stepping up to the plate and providing our officers information that will bring those responsible into custody for these violent acts. The message needs to be delivered that if you inflict violence on anyone, we’re going to do everything we can to bring them to justice.”

Prior to the deadly Labor Day weekend, AL.comas part of a partnership with The Birmingham Times, sat down with Thurmond to discuss Birmingham’s homicide problem and what was is being done to address it.

“Look at where the country was as a whole,” Thurmond said in that interview of the decline in homicide numbers 11 years ago.

“The other major cities were also having a decline during those times too. You look at the highest of 141 in 1991 with crack cocaine – they were having those spikes as well,” Thurmond said.

Is the homicide surge a problem that can’t be fixed?

“I think it’s going to be challenging” to solve the homicide problem, Thurmond said.

“If it was easy, everybody would do it. I like to be challenged. West Precinct was a challenge when I was captain there. I have a much larger assignment now and there are more moving pieces.”

Here are some of Thurmond’s thoughts shared during that extensive interview:

Conflict Resolution:

“If you look at our homicides, the offenders and the victims are known to one another. It’s not that you have someone killing someone just for the heck of it. You have people having altercations and chose to use a firearm to solve their altercation,” Thurmond said at today’s press conference.

“This year what we’re seeing, and it’s a problem across the nation, is conflict resolution. People get mad at each other and there’s no discussing anything or trying to work anything out, they just pull out a gun,” Thurmond said in his interview with AL.com.

Look at the exhibition driving where the young lady lost her life. As soon as that one car struck another, he was out and firing his gun. There was no opportunity for the driver who struck his vehicle to make amends. It was just immediate action.

“I don’t think people realize the lasting effects. They don’t think about what’s going to come of me firing this gun. It’s just trying to show I’m the bigger, badder person and don’t mess with me. And now you’ve taken someone else’s life, you’re going to jail….

“Conflict resolution is a big problem. The community has to take a stake in this. Even if we were at full capacity, let’s say 900 officers, you’ve got 900 officers to police 200,000 people. The police can only do so much no matter what. The community has to step up and do some on their own.”

Culture And The family:

Thurmond said it seems Birmingham’s homicide problem is ”society … destroying ourselves from within.”

“It’s the culture of America unfortunately. I don’t think people are raised to the same standards that they were in years past. Do homes still provide the things they used to provide as far as morals, values respect? How you resolve conflict? Being a parent is a full-time job, on top of another full time job….It’s an 18-year commitment.

“There are stakeholders in the community that they (the shooters) will listen to, whether it’s clergy or somebody out of prison that can tell them this is not the way. Somebody needs to pull their coattails and them what they’re doing is wrong.

“If the community is not going to take a stake, it’s not going to change and it’s just going to get worse…

“Is it just a city of Birmingham issue? No it’s a nationwide problem. This is the culture. Look at the music the kids listen to today. Think about the music of 70s and 80s and maybe even early 90s. They talked about girlfriends and love. It wasn’t beating and shooting, and (expletive) the police. You listen to that all day and it becomes a part of your environment.

“Look at the video games and social media. They can do great and wonderful things but there is a lot of negative that comes with it.

“Look at Grand Theft Auto IV – it’s one of the most violent games there is about killing police. It just becomes OK, normal, acceptable. It’s the culture of our society….

“You do have people, places and behaviors. If you engage with people doing illegal things in places where you shouldn’t be with people who are known for violence or other issues, the likelihood of something happening to you is very high.

“It goes back to who is raising our future? Are they being given the things they need to be successful, are they being taught the morals and values. Are they involved in the right things?

“As children, they’re going to find something to be involved in. If the parents don’t get them involved in activities or play an active role in their life, they’ll find something to get involved in and unfortunately that’s going to be in the streets a lot of times.”

“We’ve had more teens than normal killed. As a parent, do they know who their child is with? What they’re doing? With all the apps, there’s ways to see where your child is at all times and parents have to do some vetting – is what they’re child told them correct?

“Being your child’s friend is not the answer. You have to be their parent. It’s a lot of work. And the rewards can be great when they’re successful, but you have to help them get there.

“I think there are a lot of families that are fearful because they hear gunfire in their neighborhood. For someone who hasn’t experienced that, they don’t really understand. If you’re in your home and you hear that, there is fear. Are bullets going to come into my home? You have to take measures to protect your family whether it be getting on the floor or in the bathtub. That’s fearful.

“Everybody wants to enjoy peace in their home, go outside on a nice day and sit and relax. If those things are taking place, you can’t do that.”

Assaults Rather Than Homicides:

“One thing people don’t think about is the people who are shot and survive.

“A lot of them have lasting, life-long injuries and their body is not able to function like it did before they were shot. Yeah, they’re still alive but they may have to go for dialysis the rest of their life or walk with a limp. Maybe it’s pain they have to manage every day. Not to mental the PTSD issues they have from being shot.”

As of Aug. 25, there had been 227 shooting victims who have survived thus far in 2022 versus 285 at same time in 2021 — a 20.4 percent decrease.

“Unfortunately, the people getting shot are passing away – it’s not the hospital’s fault.”

The Use Of Guns In City Homicides:

Fighting gun violence is the No. 1 directive he has received from Mayor Randall Woodfin, Thurmond said.

“The increase in firepower makes a difference. A lot of it is the availability of the larger- capacity magazines and drum magazines. It’s prevalent. Criminals want to have as much firepower as they possibility can – that’s why you’re seeing some of that…..

“The number of guns sold in our country since probably 2008, 2009, 2010, is just staggering. You’re not going to get all the guns off the street but it is something we’re going to continue to focus on. But it’s the people using the gun that are the problem, it’s not the guns themselves.

“The criminals will always find a way to get guns.”

Police Staffing And The Role Officers Play:

“I think Zero Tolerance did work some, but policing in our nation has changed and I don’t think it would be accepted as well as it was once upon a time so you have to be more strategic about it,” Thurmond said of a past strategy of cracking down on violence by taking a tough stance on minor offenses.

“We are being more strategic about who are the people causing your problems…And then you need to deal with them accordingly.”

Woodfin this weekend called for a gang truce and identified some gangs by name, including H2K or Hard to Kill, which has been linked to multiple Jefferson County homicides.

“There are groups causing a lot of problems in our city right now,” Thurmond said at today’s press conference. “Those are the groups that we are looking into. Also using state, federal and local partners to look into those groups. To dismantle them is our goal there.”

Thurmond said gang-related homicides “would be a small percentage” of the overall total.

“Clearly, those (H2K) were people who were problems in our city so we identified them and as they committed crimes, they were arrested and prosecuted for what we could get them for – they were responsible for a lot of homicides in 2021, they haven’t been responsible for nearly that many in 2022,” Thurmond said.

Thurmond said another strategy is building up the Real Time Crime Center, a $3 million system which features all-seeing live technology nestled in a hub on the fourth floor of police headquarters. Thurmond wants to get more cameras onto the system.

“And there’s other software we’re looking to purchase. The Real Time Crime Center is not even a year old yet, so we’re adding more to that.

“We’re solving crimes. Several weeks ago, we got information about a stolen car. We were able to locate the car and when we got there, we found another car that had been used in a shooting. And then we ended up arresting about six people and found some guns and drugs. It was all because of the Real Time Crime Center and its technology.

“It is making a big difference and as it continues to build out, it will make a bigger difference.

“Working smarter has to be part of the solution and using technology to our advantage because it’s such a big part of all of our worlds today.

“Saturating neighborhoods does have some value but it’s not going to be your end-all, fix-all, not in this day and age.

“You try to be in those areas as much as you can but then someone can go out on their porch and fire off 10 or 15 rounds in a matter of seconds.”

Thurmond said a top priority is community engagement.

“We have to develop trust. If the community doesn’t trust us, we’re not going to be very effective. It’s a two-way street.

“I think law enforcement has the larger burden to prove their trust to the community. Are we going to treat people right, treat them with respect. I think we have to go above and beyond.

Thurmond said another key focus is employee wellness — teaching the officers and making sure they have all the tools to be successful.

“Not only at work, but at home. Financial wellness, do you eat correctly, do you exercise. How do you deal with stress? We have one of the more robust peer support programs in the state of Alabama – that helps and gives officers the opportunity to decompress.”

Thurmond declined to say how many officers the department is down, but said, “we’re short. But what law enforcement agency isn’t short?

“We can’t be everywhere all of the time, even if we are at full capacity. We are 3.9 percent down in total crime versus where we were last year. So, we’re not losing the battle.

Thurmond said the department is committed to recruitment and retention of officers. “We’ve worked hard to revamp, showing things other agencies can’t offer.”

They are now working on a pilot program of 12-hour shifts which Thurmond said will put more officers on the streets.

“They worked 12 hour shifts during the World Games – that was a real trial…..They’ll never work more than three days straight. They’ll have every weekend off and they’re off days will be set instead of rotating. They only work 14 days a month but it puts more officers on the streets so it helps with officer safety and it gives us a better response to the community.

“We need to be part of the solution. We can’t make excuses. We’ve got to figure out a way to get it done.”

What’s Going On In Other Large U.S. Cities?

“What we see in major cities usually comes to Birmingham about a year later. I think that’s what we’re seeing now with the homicides. Chicago and some other major cities have been dealing with this the past couple of years. It’s hitting us hard this year.”

In 2022, Birmingham has experienced a 27.5 percent increase in homicides, while most major cities are up about 30 percent, Thurmond said.

“We go back on each homicide and see where was a place that law enforcement could have intervened before the homicide took place. Have not found any.

“In the exhibition driving, we had been there already that night and moved them on from that location. There’s video. So to say we didn’t intervene would be false. We did. Unfortunately they’re moving around from place to place and you can’t follow them around because there’s too many of them. And the officers are getting calls for service. It’s hard to be everywhere all of the time.

“The police across our nation have been tasked with being the problem solvers of all problems and that’s part of the problem. We’re stretched so thin trying to solve so many little problems we can’t focus on some of the bigger problems…

“You can’t give up. You can’t throw in the towel. There are too many people depending on the police department to give them safe haven. If we give up, there is no hope so we have to be that hope.

Birmingham Homicides By The Numbers:

In Birmingham, most homicides happen between 3-11 p.m. The West Precinct has had half the homicides that have occurred this year.

“West, unfortunately, has always been a violent precinct but West covers 65 square miles of the 141 square miles in the city. It has the largest population – probably 60,000 to 70,000 people – so you have a large city in one precinct.”

Of the 88 homicides investigated by Birmingham police as of Aug. 25, 74 victims were males and 14 females; 77 victims were Black, nine were white and two were Hispanics.

The majority of those homicides were from firearms – 80 out of 88.

About 10 of those homicides were cases of domestic violence. “The majority are acquaintance based. We don’t have a lot of strangers getting killed.”

For more on the series click here