Six homicides happened in Birmingham during the first week of September, putting the city firmly on track for its most violent year in more than two decades and pressuring city leaders to improve their strategies for responding to such incidents and to focus on preventing them.
The first homicide of the month was the highly publicized death of 16-year-old Woodlawn High School student Will Edwards, who was killed in his North East Lake home just after midnight Sept. 1. The following evening, seven teenagers were shot during a gunfight at the downtown music venue WorkPlay, though none were killed.
Mayor Randall Woodfin described the weekend’s incidents of youth violence as a “devastating blow to our community.”
By the end of the first week, five more homicides had been reported by the Birmingham Police Department, four of which happened within a 24-hour period. Fifty-year-old Antonio Pettaway was stabbed to death in his North Birmingham home Sept. 1 and his girlfriend was taken into custody. The remaining four homicides all took place Sept. 5: 26-year-old Briana Young was shot to death while driving in South Pratt; an unidentified male was found shot to death behind the wheel of a car in Roosevelt; 24-year-old Tarrell Antone Watson was also found dead behind the wheel of a car in North Pratt, ruled a homicide by police; and 30-year-old Preston Lemar Robinson was found shot to death in Green Acres.
Just minutes after the week ended, the city already had logged its first homicide of week two. Marqueze Green, 21, died at UAB Hospital after being shot while sitting in a car on Steiner Court S.W. Another victim also was shot but is expected to recover.
It wasn’t the most homicides that have taken place in a single week this year — that would be an eight-homicide stretch between July 29 and August 4 — but it has placed Birmingham firmly on track to have its deadliest year in recent memory.
The city’s homicide rate has been steadily rising since 2015, when it jumped to 100 from the previous year’s 63. From 2010 to 2014, the city had averaged 67.4 homicides per year, but since 2015 the number has ticked steadily upward. Last year saw 115 homicides, the city’s highest rate since 1994. This year is on track to surpass that; as of Sept. 10, 84 homicides have been reported, compared to the 76 reported at this point last year.
Of the homicides so far this year, 65 have been from shootings. Over half of this year’s homicides — 42 — have occurred in the city’s West Precinct, which includes the Ensley, Five Points West and Pratt City neighborhoods, among others. The city’s South Precinct, which includes the Five Points South, Oxmoor Valley, Inverness and Kingston neighborhoods, has logged only eight homicides this year.
Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith is new to the job, having been hired to replace former Chief A.C. Roper in June. Upon taking the job, he inherited a significant personnel shortage. He said the department is about 100 officers short, part of a nationwide trend of low recruitment for police departments.
Though he said police response to the weekend’s violence had been “appropriate,” Smith acknowledged that the shortage has made it difficult for law enforcement in Birmingham to respond to calls. He said that, since taking the job, he has worked to improve the department’s numbers by increasing the number of police academies the city offers and by lowering the minimum hiring age from 21 to 20½ years.
He’s also changing the department’s shift schedule to the “4/10” schedule — in which officers work four 10-hour shifts in a week — which he said would lead to “overlapping responses (and) sufficient units in the field.”
Another overlapping approach to violent crime, he said, was the combination of the department’s robbery and homicide units, as well as the creation of a criminal assault unit.
“Right now, what the police department does is, we work with all of law enforcement to make sure that, when (incidents) happen, we’re combining crimes. If someone uses a gun over here, and then they use that same weapon again over there, we’re comparing evidence, we’re definitely making cases, and we’re definitely bringing people into justice.”
Assistant Chief Allen Treadaway, also appointed in June, said the department works closely with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, “which helps us go out after violent drug dealers,” and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “Sometimes when we don’t have the resources, we can pull from the state or federal partners and they do the same when they’re looking for information. It’s a collaborative effort that’s very important to keeping our community safe,” he said.
When it comes to preventing violent crime, Woodfin and Smith agree that it will require a culture shift for Birmingham’s youth. Of this year’s 80 homicides so far, 12 victims have been teenagers.
“If you’ll look at the last few homicides we’ve had, they’ve all been personal in nature,” Smith said. “They were oftentimes people who knew the other person, who had some type of interaction with that person … . These were people who had personal beefs, personal problems and personal issues.”
“Unfortunately, the weapon of choice nowadays happens to be handguns,” he said. “We no longer have verbal disputes and fights. It seems everyone wants to resort to handguns.”
Woodfin’s public approach to violent crime has similarly focused on conflict-resolution. Earlier this year, his administration launched a project focused on bringing conflict resolution training to Birmingham youth. The program allocated funding to 24 Birmingham-area youth organizations focused on conflict resolution. A full list of the programs can be found at the city’s website. Woodfin said that nearly 900 children and teenagers have been impacted by the programs so far.
Woodfin and Smith both also emphasized the need for students to interact with their parents, teachers and law enforcement about potential conflicts that could yield violence. “If you see something, say something,” Smith said. “(That’s) the only way we can get ahead of any of this.”
Woodfin made the point even more explicit during a press conference he called Wednesday to highlight the program.
“This no-snitching culture is not working for the city of Birmingham,” he said. “If you know someone has caused harm, share it. If you want to keep it confidential, there are ways to do that. But people have to come forward and speak up when they know someone has committed a crime.”