Category: The Legacy of Race
In 1996, Jerald Sanders, a Black man and resident of Alabama, used his pocket knife to tear a hole in a front porch screen so he could steal a bicycle stored inside.
When apprehended a few weeks later, Sanders was charged with burglary in the first degree, a Class C felony.
Because Sanders had multiple prior offenses on his record, his sentence was pushed to life in prison without parole. A Class C felony often results in a fine or minimal jail time.
Sanders’ story is not rare. Black men are sentenced to prison time that reflects not only the crime for which they are being sentenced, but for their entire criminal history. According to statistics from the Sentencing Project, Blacks are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Read more.
In this digital age, reading, comprehending text, performing basic math and problem-solving are just some of the skills students have to master to be college and career ready.
But a 2019 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that black, Hispanic and American Indian youngsters are falling behind in some of those critical skills.
Take reading, for example. NCES reported that among American fourth graders, the average 2019 reading scores were 237 for Asian and Pacific Islander students and 230 for whites. But the scores averaged 204 for blacks and American Indian students, and 209 for Hispanics.
And studies show that if a child cannot read at a proficient level by the end of third grade, he or she is more likely to struggle and even drop out of school before earning a high school diploma.
While the NCES report paints a dim picture of the academic achievement gap in America, an Alabama nonprofit called Better Basics Inc. is working to shrink the gap for underserved students in the Birmingham metro area and beyond.
When a Homewood Police Department officer starts his shift, the laptop in his police cruiser is fed data from a program called PredPol. The data fills a city map with boxes where PredPol forecasts that property crimes are most likely to occur, and the officer is expected to give those areas extra attention during his shift.
Predictive policing software programs such as PredPol have grown in popularity among law enforcement agencies over the past decade, including adoption by the Homewood Police Department and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in 2016 and Birmingham Police Department in 2019.
These programs promise high-tech, efficient policing and reduced crime rates based on cold, hard data and algorithms. Amid renewed national attention on racism and bias in police departments, the seeming color-blindness of decisions made based on computer code sounds all the more alluring.
But many opponents of predictive policing say the technology isn’t as objective as it appears and is simply perpetuating discrimination in a new way. Read more.
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.
Woodfin said the city also will need the assistance of health care providers and citizens to make the reforms work over the long term. Read more.
If practice really does make perfect, can the right kind of officer training make police shootings and excessive force less common?
Some advocacy groups and politicians believe it can. Reforming training, particularly with the addition of de-escalation or implicit bias programs, is a popular proposal in the ongoing national conversations about police use of force.
Appropriate force is especially pertinent in Alabama right now. The ACLU has reported that there were 13 officer shootings in the state as of June 30, 2020, an increase of more than 60% from the 2015-2019 average of 8.2 shootings in the same months.
The national campaign 8 Can’t Wait’s eight police reform policies includes requirements for officers to de-escalate situations when possible and to try all alternative actions before using deadly force. President Donald Trump’s “Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities” in June included “scenario-driven de-escalation techniques” among its proposed federal programs for improving policing.
The Alabama Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which sets the standards for police training statewide, is also planning to add a new implicit bias course to its police academy curriculum, according to Law Enforcement Academy-Tuscaloosa Director Randy Vaughn.
On paper, de-escalation, implicit bias and similar training programs reduce violent encounters between civilians and police by giving officers tools to change internal prejudices and resolve situations peacefully.
But there is little uniformity among police departments on what this training includes and how it is implemented. Groups such as the ACLU of Alabama also say that, at the end of the day, a training seminar is not likely to change mindsets enough to make a real difference in the use of force.
“Those (types of training) are not what is going to fundamentally shift the culture of policing and interacting in our communities,” ACLU of Alabama policy analyst Dillon Nettles said. Read more.
This is the third piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks. Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing
White supremacist and other extremist groups don’t just seek to infiltrate police departments, they also target police officers for attack. Read more.
The Alabama of the 1960s enters the history books represented by police officers such as Birmingham Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor, a segregationist who directed violence toward blacks in 1963, and Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, overseer of beatings of marchers during Bloody Sunday in1965 Selma.
In 2020, the broader nation finds itself reckoning with protests rooted in mistrust of police officers, and controversy seems relatively quieter close to home. Nationwide, some departments and officers are cracking down on demonstrators. The president has wanted to mobilize the U.S. Army to meet marchers. Evidence has surfacing that some American police officers are connected to white supremacist organizations.
There were some protests and arrests locally. For example, fewer than 30 people were arrested May 31 after a series of disturbances in downtown Birmingham with no fatalities. That’s smaller than the scale of protests in other parts of the country, and no present-day equivalents of Connor or Clark lead official resistance. The way things differ in the Birmingham area today partly stands as a legacy of racial conflicts in Alabama’s past.
“I think what you’ve seen is there was a concerted effort across multiple chiefs of police in Birmingham and multiple mayors across time in Birmingham,” said Dr. Jeff Walker, chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“The police chiefs, the mayors, the citizens, the culture, everything — it was like, ‘We have to overcome this. We can’t keep doing this.’ And they worked very, very, very hard to change the culture of the police in Birmingham, particularly in (the city of) Birmingham and in Jefferson County, … to be more … understanding of people and to try to treat everybody with a level of dignity and a level of police professionalism that you’re not seeing in other places,” Walker said. Read more.
With sidebar: Police Can Be Targets of Extremists
This is the second piece in a package on policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about new policing practices aimed at reducing the risk of bias on the job, the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks.
Previously in the The Legacy of Race: Policing
Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Certainly not Johnnie Johnson Jr., who as a West Precinct captain in the Birmingham Police Department in 1987 turned police dogs that were known for attacking civil right protestors into pups you could pet.
“We had them retrained and the trainers retrained,” Johnson recalled. “The dogs were taught that, as long as there was no aggressiveness on the part of the suspect, a dog would sit by. The dog would only attack if the suspect was aggressive or running.” Read more.
Retired Birmingham Police Chief Johnnie Johnson Jr. is a fan of the 1960s TV show “High Chaparral.” He recalls an episode in which someone was paying people to kill Indians.
“One day, they said, ‘We’re gonna have to kill Cannon,’” Johnson said, referring to the white lead character who starred in the show. “The guy said, ‘No, no. No way, bruh. Shooting an Indian is one thing but killing a man is something else.’”
In that sense, Birmingham was the High Chaparral for police in their dealings with Blacks at the time. Johnson, one of the first Black officers in the Birmingham Police Department and the first Black chief of the department when he was appointed in 1991, said police treated Blacks differently from how they treated whites.
Recent protests and clashes grew from the attitudes and events during those days in the 1960s and even earlier. Across the country, there have been incidents of Blacks being killed at the hands of law enforcement officers. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are just two examples of Blacks who have lost their lives in this manner this year.
As multiracial protestors have taken to the streets, police in some places have taken aggressive action to squelch calls for indictments and defunding of law enforcement.
For Birmingham, the most pronounced time of friction between the Black community and police was decades ago. Read more.
Who Says You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?
As part of The Legacy of Race project, BirminghamWatch is looking at policing in the Birmingham area. In coming days, we’ll be presenting stories about the continuing need to rebuild trust and threat from racist attitudes, new policing practices aimed at reducing the risk of bias on the job, the local debate over “defunding” the police and high incarceration rates among Blacks.