Danny Carr didn’t stammer as he provided closing thoughts to a gathering Thursday night in downtown Birmingham. The Jefferson County district attorney was making a point to reduce the deaths of young African-American men and boys.
“We need to continue to engage, engage, engage,” he began. “Be involved, involved, involved.”
More than 200 persons – the vast majority black men – assembled at The Parthenon, the meeting place of the Omicron Lambda graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. The gathering was a frank conversation with members of law enforcement and persons involved in criminal justice.
Carr was joined on stage by Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith and Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway, among others. Judges and others from law enforcement were in the meeting space on First Avenue North, exchanging ideas on combatting the violence and crime that can be found throughout the community.
“I’m not just the sheriff. I’m part of the community that you live in,” Pettway said. “I’m, here to help every kid … we’re going to make a difference.”
Smith urged all in attendance to work with the young people to do more.
“We have to open more doors, open more programs,” he said. “And we have to let them know that we’re there to help them. We have to be a part of their lives and help them along the way.”
The “Call to All Men” was the brainchild of Alpha member Patrick Packer. He said after the more than 2-hour event that he realized that a number of African-American men are now “sitting at the table” of leadership in law enforcement and the judiciary.
“How can this group of black men help them to reduce the violence and address the disparity of killings of young black men in our community because we’re all in it together,” he said. “Everybody on the panel has black children, and most of them have sons. They care about their sons and they are vested in this topic.”
Lawson State Community College Police Chief James Blanton echoed a repeated theme of talking with young people, communicating with them. You must hear them, he said, before you can try to tell them what they need to know.
“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said.
Pettway said that a number of young people are not getting guidance at home. He said “the village” that’s needed to raise a child has been damaged as adults fear stepping in.
“We have torn the village down,” he said. “Kids are raising kids through social media.”
Smith said the challenges that metro Birmingham faces are not unique, that other places deal with similar situations. Unfortunately, he continued, some will develop their ideas about local law enforcement officers based on what they’ve seen reported in other places.
He cautioned that officers and deputies cannot simply drive through communities with their windows rolled up. They too must engage.
“We cannot have the big divide that we’ve had so long,” he said.
Packer asked the panelists how the attendees could help. The common response was information.
“We have to get rid of the ‘Don’t snitch,’ campaign,” Carr said. “We need a witness.”
Michael Williams is the special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service. He said efforts must be made to “change the mindset” of men who are no better leaving incarceration than when they entered.
“We have to implement programs that will teach these men a life skill, something to change their mentality so that when they come out they can be productive in society,” Williams said. “Because you make a mistake in your past does not have to dictate the rest of your life.”
Circuit Judge Michael Streety said there is a misconception that most of the perpetrators of crime are from low-income homes.
“That is false,” he said. “This issue has to be addressed from all perspectives. It is a mentality that will infest every single socioeconomic status.”
Carr said Thursday’s conversation has been a long time coming. It was not a Q&A, he said; it was about solutions.
“It was not about bickering, not about pointing the finger but about solutions,” the district attorney said. “At this point, we all have to live in the community where crime is prevalent. Finding a solution to the problem of gun violence, to the problem of drugs in our community, even to the problem of truancy, young people dropping out of school. We have to run the whole gamut to see what we can do to solve this problem.
“Law enforcement can’t do it alone. The DA’s office can’t do it alone,” Carr said. “It’s going to take a community to solve this issue.”