2017 Birmingham Elections

Antidote to Birmingham Crime? Community Investment, Not More Police, Some Residents Say

What’s the way to prevent and reduce crime in Birmingham?

The prescription suggested by Birmingham residents at a BW Listening session is community involvement and investment – from city government, churches, individual residents and families, and communities as a whole.

It’s not primarily about police, they said.  “The absence of police means safety to me,” said Carmen, a West End resident. “Police can’t prevent crime.”

A half-dozen residents of East Lake and West End and other city neighborhoods gathered for a BW Listening conversation this week at the headquarters of Urban Ministry, a social services organization in southwest Birmingham. BirminghamWatch is asking what’s on the minds of Birmingham voters as they approach elections of a mayor, members of the City Council and school board members. Facilitator Marie King – who also has moderated city election candidate forums – guided the discussion.

Most agreed with Carmen that reports of city crime are “overblown.”

“Most crime happens to people who know each other. I feel safe,” said an East Lake resident. “…The people we elect to represent us are perpetuating stereotypes, causing more misperceptions.”

Perception, Reality of Crime

The worry about perceptions and labelling remained, but other reactions surfaced as the group recalled personal encounters with crime – from car break-ins, to violence at the Fair, to childhood friends murdered.

An East Lake resident asked: Has living with crime become so normalized that we just look for clues to avoid it, not discuss it as a problem?

Addressing crime is entangled with changing economic and demographic realities in the city – black flight as well as white flight to the suburbs; big churches whose members come for services but drive away afterward; many living in poverty; a return to parts of the city by young people and white families.

“I need you to stay back until we figure out how to build our neighborhoods,” said Carmen, addressing those newly concerned about the quality of life in Birmingham neighborhoods.

So what might a community response to crime, not a policing response, look like?

Government, Churches, Neighbors Play Roles 

Carmen believes government should invest in clean, safe housing; lights in the neighborhoods; and sidewalks. Such surroundings put those who live there “in a different head-space and standards change,” she said.

The group brainstormed other ideas:

Churches could be open seven days a week, with programs and a presence. They might offer grants for which residents living in poverty could apply to meet urgent needs.

Residents need to learn how to be community members – knowing neighbors, being seen in the neighborhood, connecting in ways that hold everybody accountable to each other.

Beyond that, the group acknowledged, there is a problem difficult for government and churches, schools and neighbors to address: “Everything starts in the home,” a participant said. “We have fractured homes.”  “I see children seeing violence every day,” another participant said. “I’m upset with the idea that is a normal thing.”