City of Birmingham

Birmingham Won’t Defund Police, but Public Safety Plan Includes Training, Social Workers and Civilian Oversight of Complaints

Birmingham Police officers during a recent protest. (Photo by Tom Gordon)

The city of Birmingham said “no” to defunding the police but “yes” to social workers partnering with police, “yes” to improving police training and giving citizens a role in overseeing complaints, and “yes” to better services with which officers and members of the public can interact.

Those are some of the conclusions in the 100-plus-page report Reform and Reimagine Birmingham Public Safety, issued Thursday after a months-long look at how to improve interactions between the city police force and the rest of the community.

Mayor Randall Woodfin and City Council Public Safety Chairman Hunter Williams rolled out the report during a press conference in which they promised more transparency and accountability, enhanced efforts to connect with businesses and the public, and an ongoing commitment to change for stronger relations with constituents. Some of the reforms will go into effect almost immediately. Others may take a year or more, Woodfin said.

The report came from the city’s Public Safety Task Force, which included a former U.S. attorney, a retired detective, an anti-police brutality advocate, a lawyer and the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Birmingham.

Read the Reform and Reimagine Birmingham Public Safety report.

Woodfin said the city also will need the assistance of health care providers and citizens to make the reforms work over the long term.

He rejected calls to defund the police, saying that the most common request he hears from citizens is to beef up the department and put more officers on the job.

“Every police department in the nation is different. It’s apples and oranges, and the conversation that happens in one police department may not fit what happens in another police department,” Woodfin said. “As it relates to the city of Birmingham’s police department budget, well over 90% of that budget is for personnel, the actual salaries of our police officers. Unless we are saying to the public (that) we want to let go of police officers, we’re not going to be in a position to have this conversation … .

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin discusses police reforms. Source: Nick Patterson

“As much as a national conversation is going on about defund the police, on the ground a majority of voices I hear when I am in neighborhoods, when I attend neighborhood meetings, when I am speaking to everyday citizens, is the actual exact opposite of defund the police. It is, ‘Mayor, please — we want more police.’”

In any case, the phrase “defund the police” means different things to different people. One of the members of the city task force, Black Lives Matter co-founder Cara McClure, later said on the city Facebook page, “Defund is reforming and reimagining.”

Although the Birmingham reform initiatives are connected with the national 8 Can’t Wait campaign, modifications were made based on the relationships between Birmingham police officers and the community. The task force “recommended initiatives that address community engagement, better policy and better oversight, as well as training and education and safety and wellness,” Woodfin said, adding that reform takes time.

“It is important to understand that reform cannot happen in one day. Reform doesn’t happen in one week or one month. That is an ongoing process that takes time,” the mayor said. “However, I remain committed, along with Hunter Williams, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, and the entire City Council, in establishing a public safety agenda to improve matters for our residents as well as our police department. … I remain on a path to get to where we need to be and that is to be transparent, proactive and responsive to build a safe, healthy, as well as an equitable future for citizens and our community.”

While some elements of the agenda will take a year or longer to implement, the mayor said that some things can be implemented relatively quickly.

As of Dec. 18, “Social workers will partner with officers from West Precinct to address misdemeanor domestic violence incidents,” Woodfin said. “The emergency advocacy team pilot program — or Pete, for short — is a pilot program which will work to break the cycle of domestic violence.”

Reasons for Reform

 The city’s efforts to reform police and public safety policy arise during a time of great national outcry about police violence, which disproportionately impacts racial minorities and at times people suffering from mental illness. Protests and riots that erupted across the country in the wake of the high-profile police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, have been reflected — though generally less violently — in smaller Birmingham-area protests.

“This next iteration of public safety policy for the Woodfin Administration has been developed with a deep appreciation of the health, cultural, economic, and political conditions of the moment,” said the executive summary of the Reform and Reimagine report. “It has also been developed … to navigate this moment to build a safe, healthy, and equitable future for Birmingham.”

Woodfin appointed a task force to take a deep dive into Birmingham’s public safety framework, with members that include Former U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, Black Lives Matter Birmingham co-founder Cara McClure, retired Birmingham and New York detective Dr. Ed Watkins, lawyer Victor Revill and UAB graduate and Listen co-founder Jaselle Houghtlin.

The task force hosted 11 listening sessions to get information from the community and took a survey of law enforcement. It also factored in survey results showing that 64% of Birmingham’s registered voters support creation of a national database on police use of force and police killings. That survey also showed that just less than half the voters in the city favor a ban on “no knock” police raids. Louisville officers killed Taylor after obtaining a “no knock” warrant, although she was not the intended target and reports indicate they actually did knock before breaking down the door of her apartment.

A central tenet to the Birmingham reform efforts seems to be in line with national and local calls to view violence, including law enforcement violence, as a public health issue. “This policy agenda represents a combined effort to implement criminal justice reform and integrate City services in support of public safety using a public health framework,” the report’s executive summary said. “This should not only improve public safety in Birmingham but reimagine it … . Ultimately, this public safety policy is a people-centric approach to improve public safety by: 1) investing in the people and communities that can have the greatest impact on public safety; 2) reforming current public safety operations; 3) creating new infrastructure for a reimagined public safety system; and 4) continuing to improve intergovernmental collaboration.”

What Will It Look Like?

The city’s reform efforts are organized under four “pillars” — community empowerment, policy and oversight, training and education for police, and safety and wellness.

The community empowerment pillar includes engaging the community through listening sessions, publishing Birmingham police policies online, making opportunities available for volunteers from the public to assist public safety efforts, working with businesses to make them safer, and being “more hospitable to patrons and employees,” as well as addressing issues of homelessness and “curb appeal.”

That pillar also includes creating and supporting “alternative justice” models, a departure from the common way crime is dealt with. These models will “support prevention, diversion, and reentry,” the report said:

“Not every offense deserves the full force of the criminal justice system. The City will continue to work internally and with other units of government to determine: 1) viable models of alternative justice, including restorative justice practices; 2) convene stakeholders to discuss potential offenses and venues suitable for alternative justice models; 3) determine the scope, scale, and costs of effectively implementing such models; and 4) work with other units of government to find the resources for implementation.”

The policy and oversight pillar includes a Citizen Advisory Board to “receive and mediate civilian complaints filed against BPD officers.” The initiative also includes auditing of police policies, operations and administration and auditing expenditures related to public safety and public health. And it includes a ban on police using facial recognition technology because “mounting evidence suggests that emerging facial recognition technology consistently misidentifies people of color.”

Birmingham also will implement its own version of “Breonna’s Law,” which the public safety report described as “a policy to prohibit BPD officers from engaging in the kind of high-risk raids that took her life.”

“We also recommend reforms that go beyond prohibiting high-risk ‘quick knock’ raids by reforming Departmental policy related to all search warrants from request to execution to resolution to reporting,” the report continued.

The policy and oversight pillar also includes tracking and intervening in unlawful police behavior patterns, the report said, noting that the officer who shot Floyd “had an extensive history of misconduct.”

The training and education pillar begins with reexamining how first responders, starting with the BPD, are qualified. Training going forward is expected to include:

  • The history of policing and the history of policing in Birmingham
  • Social interaction & tactical skills
  • Addiction as a disease
  • Elections and law enforcement
  • Implicit bias and cultural responsiveness
  • Increased basic legal education, particularly lawful search, seizure and arrest statutes/protocol

The safety and wellness element of the initiative involves finding ways to address problems before they lead to crime.

“It is often lost in the quest for justice and the pain of victims that a lot of crime can be prevented by directly addressing the needs of those most likely to commit crime before they do,” the report said. “Using a public health approach in a coordinated partnership with other units of government and social service providers, services can be provided to persons most likely to commit crime and prevent them from going down that path.”

The plan includes increasing the number of social workers, social scientists and mental health professionals on the city payroll, including with the police department. The report acknowledges that will be a financial challenge after revenues declined during the pandemic. “The City is in tight fiscal times and positions cost money,” the report said. “However, the impact that public health workers can have on the city’s overall safety is significant. Therefore, as the implementation of this agenda progresses, these personnel will be at the forefront of all personnel decisions.”

The program being piloted in Birmingham’s western section will be an early example of the city prioritizing social services, specifically for domestic violence cases.

Assistant Chief Darnell Dwight Davenport said that officials with BPD noticed repeat calls about incidents of  domestic violence from some residents. “In fact … we had some community members over the course of 365 days that had called the police department more than 25 times to report that they had been victims of domestic violence,” Davenport said. “Part of reimagining policing is looking at, are our current strategies working effectively? One of the things we realized is our strategy as it relates to domestic violence is not working effectively.

“Consequently, what we now are going to do starting next week, Dec. 18, is we’re now going to put a social worker with a police officer to respond to these particular calls. What we realize is that at the time of the incident, most victims are open to intervention services. And so at that time, we’re going to start an intervention program connecting that particular victim with wraparound services,” Davenport said.

Studies show that intervention at that point in a domestic violence case tends to improve outcomes. “The likelihood of that victim being a victim of domestic violence in the future is significantly reduced,” he said.

If the pilot program pairing a social worker with a police officer works in West Precinct, the plan is to expand it throughout the city, Davenport said.

Another element of the safety and health pillar is that Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service will be getting a new medical director, and BPD will be provided with additional mental health resources for officers themselves.

“Too often, the needs and stresses of law enforcement have been overlooked and inadequately addressed,” the report said. “Society’s understanding and ability to address mental health and mental wellness have grown exponentially over the past 20 years. Birmingham Police Department officers deserve the full benefit of advances in mental health that can keep them and their loved ones mentally well.”