In a presentation to neighborhood officers, Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith laid out a new strategy for the department and urged residents to be proactive in addressing crime in their communities.
“We have to get real about it,” he said. “We cannot do things the way we always did.”
Thursday’s meeting, which took place after a swearing-in ceremony for newly elected neighborhood officers, was one of the first major presentations of Smith’s strategy since he took the job in June. Smith described his first six months on the job as playing “catch-up” with a department that had fallen “behind the curve” in its approach to fighting crime.
“When I took over, I did an analysis of the department,” he said. “Over time, from 2014 to 2018, crime has doubled … We have to do a lot to bring this police department back to where it needs to be.”
Smith highlighted the department’s new “4/10” model of shift scheduling, which ensures overlap of police units in the field and prevents gaps in policing during shift changes.
“The way things were done (before he was hired), there was an hour to an hour and a half each day where … no one was policing the city,” he said. “An officer was getting out of one car and another officer was getting into that car … (And) our criminals knew what was going on. They knew what time to show up at your house.”
Smith also pointed out his department’s beefed-up approach to solving violent crimes, saying that by merging the department’s robbery and homicide divisions and adding a criminal assault component to the new division’s purview, the number of detectives handling homicides had increased from just seven people to 51. That increased the department’s clearance rate — the percentage of homicide cases in which suspects are charged — from 29 percent to 52 percent, much closer to the national average of 59 percent, he said.
Increasing the personnel in an understaffed police department has been a priority for Smith since he took the job, and on Thursday he expressed optimism about the BPD’s growing recruitment numbers.
“We have over 50 people (signed up) for our next police academy class,” he said. “We’ve not had 40 people for an academy class in over a decade.” Instituting a rehire program, he added, had also curtailed the department’s attrition rates.
Introducing Smith, Mayor Randall Woodfin argued that “the whole notion of public safety does not center around a one-legged stool of enforcement only.”
“We are not going to arrest our way out of crime (in) Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “It doesn’t work like that.”
Accordingly, Smith spent much of his presentation laying out preventative strategies that his department was taking, including establishing a re-entry program in the city’s jail to foster workforce development among prisoners.
“We had a lot of skilled workers inside the jail, and the jail needed some repairs,” he said. “Why not allow (the skilled workers) to train some other people while they are there? … Start teaching them how to paint, how to do some repairs … so that when they come out, they can see the possibility of hope for the future, and they can paint your house rather than breaking into your house.”
Smith also defended the increase in police checkpoints throughout the city as another preventative measure — a “crime interruptor,” he called it.
“It gives us a lot of intelligence of what’s happening,” he said. “(Criminals) can’t shoot up your house if they can’t get to your house.”
Smith said he was aware of some public skepticism about the checkpoints, but he asked residents to “bear with me (and) give us a little bit of latitude.”
“We have to do something to slow down traffic in this city,” he said. “We have to do something to institute enforcement … . The most important thing is that we’re completely fair all across the city. We’re not just contacting one person. We’re checking everybody.”
The department’s plan for 2019, Smith said, is focused on improving and increasing its technological capabilities, which are intrinsically connected with a preventative approach to crime fighting.
This year, he said, the department is working to establish a crime center to improve interdepartmental cooperation and implement PredPol, a software that can anticipate specific times and locations where crimes are more likely to occur.
Smith also called on residents to become more active by establishing neighborhood watches.
“I’m telling you today that I need you. I’m telling you today that your involvement is critical. There’s a lot going on in this city. And if this city is to be successful, your public service must be successful.”
The discussion of public safety strategies in Birmingham is slated to continue with Woodfin’s State of the Community address, which is scheduled for Jan. 14 at 6 p.m. in the Boutwell Auditorium.