This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.” Sign up for the newsletter here.
Homicides in the City of Birmingham dropped double digits in the first quarter of 2023, despite a spate of fatal shootings in late March that left nine people dead in just nine days.
“It’s just very frustrating because we had done really well up until that point,’’ said Police Chief Scott Thurmond.
From Jan. 1 through March 31, there were 26 homicides in Birmingham.
Of those, two have been ruled justifiable and therefore aren’t deemed criminal.
That first quarter tally is a 16 percent drop from the same time period in 2022, which saw 31 total homicides.
Since the end of March, two more homicides have taken place in the city – a 17-year-old was killed April 1 at an east Birmingham apartment complex and a 28-year-old man was shot to death a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy outside the Collegeville public housing community.
In the first three months of 2023, there had been 74 people shot who survived those injuries. That number was up from 70 for the same time period in 2022.
“That’s way too high,’’ Thurmond said.
A Record-Setting Year
Birmingham ended 2022 with the families and friends of 144 homicide victims left grieving.
The year was deadliest in recent history and only a few homicides short of being the deadliest in the Magic City’s entire history.
The previous highest number of homicides recorded in recent memory was 141 in 1991. The city’s all-time annual record for homicides was set in 1933 recorded when Birmingham had 148 slayings.
The lowest number ever recorded was 56 in 1966. The last time homicides reached into the 130s was in 1994.
In all of Jefferson County as of March 31 of this year, 32 people had been killed, compared to 29 in 2022.
The City of Montgomery had 25 homicides in the first quarter of 2023. Mobile investigated 10 and Huntsville had 12, including one person shot to death by police.
There is no one reason for the ebb and flow of homicide numbers.
In February 2022, 13 people were killed in the city. That number dropped to just three in February of this year.
The city went almost three weeks without a homicide – from Feb. 22 until March 9. Then, between March 20 and March 29, nine people were shot to death. Those slayings included three students killed over spring break.
The longest the city has ever gone without homicide in recent memory is more than 40 days. That lull took place from Dec. 24, 2009, through Feb. 6, 2010.
Fighting Gang Violence
Thurmond said the department believes initiatives that are underway are slowing the killings.
“We’re trying to attack the neighborhood gang situation and I think that’s helping some.”
Those street gangs, the chief said, include H2K, which has been the focus of city and federal authorities and said to be responsible for 10 or more homicides in the recent years.
“Neighborhood gangs beefing with another causes some of these shootings,’’ Thurmond said. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of that this year, but it’s still very early and that’s what concerns me.”
“It’s just now starting to get warm, so I still have a lot of concern for what the rest of the year holds overall,’’ he said.
Thurmond said Birmingham police have strengthened ties with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
“All of us are working together to combat this problem,’’ he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to successful.”
“We’re not in competition with each other,’’ he said. “We all want a safer city.”
Thurmond said he and Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway have committed to working together.
“That is something that hasn’t really been done in the past,’’ Thurmond said. “Our criminals travel. They don’t care where the jurisdiction lines are.”
“We can share information and help make a case and get that person off the streets to make our community safer,’’ the chief said.
“I’m confident in the initiatives that we have,’’ Thurmond said. “They just need more time to play out.”
‘Nick Saban Doesn’t Share All His Secrets.’
Following the nine killings in nine days, Thurmond held a press conference where he was candid about the violence and the role the victims play in their demise.
The killings are devastating to those who knew and loved the victims, the chief said, but many of them happened because of the victims’ actions and could have been prevented.
“So, we need to have a really candid conversation about the things that are transpiring in our city as it relates to homicides and violence,’’ Thurmond said.
“There’s a term I’ve coined recently, and it’s ‘stop and think.’ Stop and think before you engage in activities you shouldn’t be engaging in. Think about who you are with. Stop and think before you pull that gun out and start pulling the trigger,’’ Thurmond said. “Are you going to die? Are you going to end up in prison? How many families are you going to shatter? Stop and think before you engage in these illegal activities.”
Those nine homicides, he said, were not connected to each other in any form or fashion.
“That makes it harder for law enforcement to intervene or prevent,’’ he said. “It’s spur of the moment. Like the locksmith that was killed (earlier this year) in a dispute over pay. How does law enforcement intervene in that? You can’t.”
“You have to stop and think, ‘Is this so egregious that I have to shoot and potentially kill this person right now?’’’ he said. “In that situation, the answer was no.”
Thurmond knows that, ultimately, the buck stops with him.
“I’m responsible for the safety of the citizens of Birmingham,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, I’m the one who is held responsible for that, and I take that very seriously.”
After seeing progress, he said it was demoralizing to have the spate of deadly violence in late March.
“I know how hard the men and women of the Birmingham police department are working and I know how many things we’re doing to try to combat gun violence in our city and it’s like somebody came in just threw it all down the tubes,’’ he said.
“It’s like you’ve worked on a sandcastle all day at the beach. It’s getting to be afternoon and you’re almost done, and you want to show your friends and family what you’ve done,’’ he said. “People come by and destroy the whole thing and it’s all gone in a matter of seconds – nine days threw a massive wrench in everything we’ve been doing.”
“When I look at the phone and get an alert from dispatch or the homicide team that there’s been another homicide, it’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’’’ he said.
“But we’re going to continue to work hard and try to find new ways to combat these issues,’’ he said.
While some think it is the police department’s responsibility to stop the violence, Thurmond said he knows there are others who believe the community plays a role and that is something he often talks about.
“Our nation does not want the government 100 percent controlling their life and everything they do and rightfully so,’’ he said.
“So, the community is going to have to step up to the plate, parents are going to have to step up to the plate and be involved and take a very impactful role in the community and in their children in order for this to change. ”
The chief believes the city is moving in the right direction.
“What we’ve been doing has been giving us some good results,’’ he said. “Some initiatives have been implemented and some are still being built out.”
“Not everything is 100 percent,’’ he said. “We’re still getting up to speed, but I’ve seen some of these work in other cities.”
He said he can’t disclose those initiatives because it could thwart those efforts.
“If we put out what we’re doing, the criminals are going to change what they’re doing which is going to make it harder combat some of these things,’ he said. “Nick Saban doesn’t share all his secrets.”
AL.com reporter William Thornton contributed to this report.