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How Violence Prevention Initiatives Have Evolved in Birmingham

Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson said the city’s new Justice and Governance Partnership with the Common Ground initiative will work because of its countless resources. (FILE)

By Alaina Bookman | abookman@al.com

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?” Click here to sign up for the newsletter.

Over the course of Birmingham’s history, there were times when murder seemed like an almost daily occurrence. When homicide deaths were at their highest city leaders and community organizers would step in with programs aimed at curbing gun violence.

Some programs were aimed at getting guns off the streets, while others attempted to encourage conflict resolution among youth. Not all were successful and the programs that showed promise did not continue their efforts for more than a few years.

Throughout it all, though, Birmingham has not shaken the label as one of the most violent cities in the United States

With homicides deaths hitting triple digits since 2016 and last year nearly setting a record with 144 homicides, a new initiative was launched.

Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson said the city’s new Justice and Governance Partnership with the Common Ground initiative will work because of its countless resources.

“The past initiatives did not have the resource element,” Tyson said. “A person coming out of jail, they put him in a halfway house, they give them a job. But where’s the training coming in to teach them how to return to society?”

Community members continue to hold out hope that the new initiative will make Birmingham safer for their children.

Birmingham’s Common Ground

Early this year, the City of Birmingham created the Justice and Governance Partnership under the umbrella of Common Ground project in response to a modern-day record high number of homicide deaths in 2022.

Tyson is participating in the Justice and Governance Partnership, designed to support policy improvements focused on ending overdependence on the criminal legal system and reinvesting in community members and institutions most knowledgeable about the neighborhoods they serve.

Common Ground takes an integrated approach to reducing gun violence including conflict resolution programs and curriculum for K-12 students, medical and mental health services in hospitals, and workforce development training for past offenders. The Common Ground Project is largely funded by the City of Birmingham and Mayor Randall Woodfin’s administration. Over $5 million has been contributed to the projects.

One part of the partnership targets past offenders to ensure they will not become repeat offenders to curb gun violence through conflict resolution and rehabilitation efforts.

The partnership will work to provide access to housing, healthy food, transportation, daycare services, job resources, and training to people who were once imprisoned.

Though the commissioner’s office focuses a great deal of resources on the rehabilitation of past offenders, they are also working on violence prevention programs that focus on children.

“You have to catch them at an early age. You have some people that fall into the category just from the elements of their household, the area they live in, mental illness in the home, and various reasons that they may be more susceptible to get into trouble,” Tyson said.

Tyson’s team is working with young people from middle to high school to facilitate conversations about conflict resolution and even teaching them about gun safety to curb violence. The commissioner’s office also hosts a “safe summer” program where children are given bikes, skateboards, swimwear, and safety equipment to have a fun and safe summer.

Tyson said the goal is to teach them that trouble is easy to get into and hard to get out of.

“As long as there’s crime, we’ll need prevention,” Tyson said. “I think this is a program that could last.”

A Holistic Approach

One mother who lost her child to gun violence in 2016 said her experience with one Birmingham violence reduction program left a positive impact on her and her children.

The Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative, a comprehensive approach to violence prevention, was created in 2015 after a dramatic spike in homicide deaths and ended in 2017 with a new administration.

In 2015, the number of homicides in Birmingham and throughout Jefferson County jumped dramatically, mirroring a nationwide trend of increased violence. In 2015, Birmingham ended the year with 92 homicides, a 55 percent increase over 2014.

The Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative philosophy and framework was derived from the National Network of Safe Communities’ holistic approach to violence reduction by communicating directly with high-risk community members, providing support to past offenders, and enhancing the legitimacy of law enforcement to make communities safer.

Jarralynne Agee, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Miles College was the executive director of the BVRI where she said her favorite part of the job was fostering relationships with community members who had directly been affected by gun violence.

Providing strollers and car seats, paying copays for health, license reinstatement, court fees, cell phone bills, deposits for rent and utilities, and providing access to health care, transportation, and housing was a fraction of how the BVRI served the community.

Though Agee enjoyed providing aid to those in need, she said she also experienced many low points while working with the BVRI.

“I went through a lot. It was probably the hardest thing that I’ve ever done professionally, in my life. It was an emotionally overwhelmingly powerful experience meeting people who would be alive in April and gone in August,” Agee said. “I felt like I was in an ICU with no electricity, just bodies dropping.”

Agee said she developed a close friendship with a woman, Teria Paige, whose son died as a result of gun violence. Agee met Paige’s son, Chauncey Harper, in April of 2016.

City organizers held multiple home visits with Harper after the first time he was shot. Members tried to recruit him to the BVRI and talked with him about getting back on the right track but ultimately, he never got on board. Harper died of gunshot wounds in July 2016 after being shot again at the age of 20.

After his death, Agee called her new friend every day.

Paige said Agee helped her to make it through the death of her son both financially and spiritually which kept her in a good head space for her five children.

“After my son was murdered, a lot of things happened. I didn’t want to live in the house with all the memories. I found an apartment and I needed the deposit. As soon as I told her about it, she got the deposit, it was paid, and I was in the apartment within a week of me telling her,” Paige said.

She said Agee also supported her by ensuring her bills were paid, she had groceries, and her kids were attending school. She even helped her to get a new car, which she still drives today.

Paige shared one occasion where members of the BVRI arranged for police in cop cars full of teddy bears for her children to line up outside of her home as a show of support.

“It made me feel so good, like somebody cared about my child regardless of the situation, or what happened, or if he was involved – it didn’t matter. They still pulled up and they were concerned, and it made me feel so good. So good,” Paige said.

“She had done everything to try to keep the younger siblings on track due to what happened with their brother. They were giving up, and once she became a part of my life they wanted to try again,” Paige said.

Agee also worked closely with law enforcement; officials were able to share information about the victims and their families so Agee could provide support and assistance. She said the BVRI’s partnership with law enforcement was a key element of the project.

A lot of resources, time, and effort went into the law enforcement portion of the initiative. Agee said she believes the BVRI would have been more successful if that same amount of effort was invested into other parts of the program.

On its law enforcement side, the BVRI intended to identify criminals prior to a crime taking place. Community organizers criticized the program for relying on militarized police tactics to target people who had not committed any crime.

In early 2017, as part of a BVRI enforcement effort to stop the circulation of drugs, police cars raided Central Pratt, a neighborhood in Birmingham. The raid included the use of a SWAT truck and multiple officers in camouflage, alarming residents. A 66-year-old grandmother at one of the raided homes was forced to the ground at gunpoint by one of the officers, according to previous reporting by AL.com

There were mixed reactions among Birmingham residents about the effectiveness of the BVRI with some believing the police tactics were too much and others finding comfort in their presence. The BVRI ended with the beginning of the Woodfin administration in 2017.

Agee said the people she worked with, oftentimes mothers who had lost their sons to gun violence, were happy to have a resource like BVRI to provide support in times of need.

“Her loss was real, significant, and profound, but then she could also empathize with me in my day-to-day crazy life, even though she had the greatest loss in the world,” Agee said. “With programs like that there’s a humanity that’s underneath it.”

The Anti-Gang Approach

Prior to 2015, the city saw a major spike in homicides in 2008 with 82 homicide deaths. As a result, The U.S. Department of Justice’s Comprehensive Anti-Gang Training was implemented in Birmingham that same year.

Project Safe Neighborhood launched the Comprehensive Anti-Gang Training in multiple cities with the goal of improving the level of knowledge, communication, and collaboration involved in addressing the criminal gang issue impacting communities.

In a 2008 press release, the U.S. Department of Justice said they wanted to prioritize prevention programs to provide America’s youth, as well as offenders returning to the community, with opportunities that help them resist gang involvement.

The Birmingham CAGT was only awarded funding in 2008 and there are no recorded analysis or reviews of the program in Birmingham.

However, evaluations of the program in other cities reported declines in crime throughout the high-crime target areas. In Dallas, where there was high CAGT enforcement, experienced a 25 percent decline of violent crime in the city’s target areas.

Though the Birmingham police department recorded 65 homicides in 2009, a 21 percent decrease from the previous year, the city was still ranked among the top 20 most dangerous cities in the U.S.

Youth Violence Prevention

Before 2022 marked the record high number of homicides deaths, in recent history, the highest number of homicides was 141 in 1991. After starting the decade with such a high homicide rate, The U.S. Department of Justice created the Birmingham Youth Firearms Violence Initiative in 1996, focusing primarily on prevention.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services launched the Youth Firearms Violence Initiative in multiple cities. In Birmingham, the police department worked to establish school-based community policing, crime prevention education, and training for police officers, students, and teachers – focusing primarily on prevention to curb violence.

The police department assigned 18 officers to serve as School Resource Officers whose primary focus was to reduce occurrences of youth firearm crime in the Birmingham Public School System through education and intervention.

Programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, popularly referred to as D.A.R.E., and Gang Resistance Education and Training, and Problem Oriented Policing were introduced into the school curriculum. Police officers provided positive role models for students and served as a liaison between the school and the police department, according to the evaluation of the YFVI.

The National Institute of Justice sponsored the national evaluation of the YFVI from the fall of 1995 through the summer of 1998. The review of the Birmingham YFVI said the program was promising as violent offenses involving juveniles declined 28 percent from 1997­1998, falling from 1,045 to 752 offenses. However, without consistent evaluations of the YFVI, it is hard to say if the programs continued to work.

How Can We Make A Difference?

The proliferation of guns, pandemic stress, and diminished public trust in the police all contributed to the increase in homicides nationwide, criminology experts say. The World Health Organization said homicide is caused by mix of factors at the individual, relationship, community, and societal levels.

University of Alabama at Birmingham Professor Emeritus John Sloan said the high rates of violence in the city can largely be attributed to gun availability and ease of access to those firearms.

“I was in Birmingham for about 30 years. And throughout most of that time, Birmingham has always been among the most violent cities in the U.S. Their violence rates are always well above the national average,” Sloan said, now living in Orange Beach.

During a grassroots campaign in 2017 Mayor Randall Woodfin talked about the uneven quality of life across Birmingham saying some residents did not feel safe on their own porches.

Sloan stressed the importance of gun violence prevention, saying a comprehensive approach is necessary for cities to make a difference.

“The place to start is not when they’re 26 and they’ve been convicted of four armed robberies. That’s not the place to start. The place to start is when they’re very young. Prevention is the key,” Sloan said.

He said there were “awesome” violence reduction programs in cities like Harlem, Chicago and Boston that take a holistic approach to curbing violence – focusing on prevention, community outreach, and law enforcement.

Operation Ceasefire, Boston’s approach to violence prevention, had a dramatic impact on reducing gang violence. In 1998, there was a 71 percent decrease in homicides by people ages 24 and under and a 70 percent reduction in gun assaults across all ages.

The program was created in 1996 as a citywide strategy to deter juvenile and gang firearm violence. The Boston Police department worked with community members to identify specific offenders and gangs that law enforcement was then able to target and arrest.

Sloan said without specific targets or community-based knowledge of offenders, programs like Boston’s Operation Ceasefire will not be successful when similar methods are implemented in cities like Birmingham.

“We’re always looking for a magic bullet and there’s not one, but there are reasoned and reasonable efforts or policies that are holistic in their orientation and are targeted,” he said. “Those are the kinds of programs or policies or initiatives that tend to be successful.”

Chauncey Harper was born in 1996, the same year the YFVI was launched, in a community that was aware of the horrors of gun violence and how it affected the lives of youth across the country. He died in 2016 as members of the BVRI were working to touch the lives of people struggling with the loss of their loved ones to gun violence.

Today, Paige said she hopes the city can continue to try and make a positive impact on the lives of the children who are most vulnerable.

“I wish they would have more programs for the kids to have something to do after school and in the summer and when they’re out. They need to have some type of program to occupy their time, so they won’t have so much time on the street,” Paige said.