Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith presented the City Council with an update on violent crime Tuesday, sparking a discussion that delved into poverty, youth initiatives and some councilors’ dissatisfaction with Mayor Randall Woodfin’s proposed FY 2020 budget.
Smith began his presentation by looking at the recent history of crime in Birmingham, which he said dramatically spiked between 2014 and 2018. “In 2014, the city of Birmingham had only 51 homicides within the city,” he said. “But in 2015, we moved up to 78. In 2016, we went to 92. In 2017, 99. In 2018, we reached 100.
“So somewhere in there, something happened and we didn’t make the turn to make changes in what we do, make changes in our policing patterns and what we needed to improve the city … . We’ve got to do more to reach out, to help people, to save people in our community.”
Smith added that 2019 was so far on par with 2018’s homicide rate, and he warned that summer months — June through September — would likely be the “most violent time of the year,” based on precedent.
Regardless, he said, most citizens had little to worry about. “A lot of people say, … ‘Are we really safe out there?’ My answer to you is, ‘Yes, absolutely, without a doubt,’” he said, adding that most homicides were committed by acquaintances of the victims, ”people that you allow in your life and in your home… . A lot of it is fueled by domestic incidences and, last year, retaliation.”
Smith pointed to changes he had made to the police department, including changing its shift schedule to place more officers in the field during peak crime times, instituting daily major crime briefings to hold captains responsible, and working with the Birmingham Housing Authority to address crime in public housing, where he said “10 to 15 percent of overall crime within the city” happens.
He also highlighted the city’s increased focus on crime-fighting technology and said that a real-time crime center — a proposed $1.5 million capital project for the next year — should be operational by “mid to late next year.”
District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt suggested to Smith that the city expand the scope of its crime-fighting approach. “I think there’s a correlation, in my estimation, with respect to poverty,” he said. “I’d like for you to look at impoverished areas and those surroundings because I think that might be a (crime) indicator as well.”
Woodfin, who was standing alongside Smith, jumped in. “We do see that certain ZIP codes within this city (have) concentrated poverty. We see crime is different (there). But I believe poverty has been in this city for a long time … . Poverty’s been in the black community for a long time. (But) I think there’s something deeper than poverty.”
He added that his proposed FY 2020 operating budget would dedicate $2 million toward the Birmingham Promise Educational Initiative, an apprenticeship program that would benefit all Birmingham City Schools students — particularly the demographic of young black men Smith highlighted as most affected by the city’s violent crime rate.
Hoyt replied by apparently contradicting himself, suggesting that poverty actually was not a metric “to say what we will or will not do to augment our responsibility in trying to reduce crime because of poverty.”
“To use as a denominator poverty and to say it’s always been there, that’s not an excuse to make things better,” he said.
Discretionary Funds vs Nonprofit Grants
Hoyt then changed the subject to focus on the city’s budget proposal, highlighting that many nonprofit organizations had their funding cut from the budget; Woodfin had instead placed $50,000 in each councilors’ discretionary funding.
“I have noticed in this budget that … most of the black organizations were zeroed out and most of the majority organizations were given an extra shot in the arm,” he said. “I don’t know how you’re going to fight crime, I don’t know how you’re going to fight poverty, if these organizations are nested in our respective districts’ (funds) and (the city as a whole is) not funding them.
“This is just me now, but I’m not getting ready to fund another initiative until we address those organizations that already exist to help us in the community to make the communities better. That’s what we ought to be doing, putting our money there. It’s not up for a councilor’s individual office to fund nonprofits. I hope y’all don’t go for that carrot, because I’m not biting.”
Woodfin responded by saying that Hoyt had brought up poverty as a metric, and that his proposed budget had resulted from conversations with the council. “Collectively, you presented a proposed budget where you wanted an increase in your discretionary money … . None of the organizations (you) spoke to, none of them dealt with crime … . I’ll gladly take the $50,000 away from you — that you requested — and put it back into those organizations. Please let me know which one you want to do.”