Jefferson County Commission Debates Putting Victim Interview Offices in Eastern Birmingham

Commissioners Lashunda Scales and Jimmie Stephens confer during the Jan. 9, 2020 , meeting. (Source: Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Efforts to establish a pair of new Jefferson County Sheriff’s offices in eastern Birmingham are at least on hold until law enforcement leaders in the city and county demonstrate they are in agreement on the move.

Commissioner Lashunda Scales broached a discussion about the offices. They were on the Jefferson County Commission committee agenda as “substations,” but the discussion shifted to them being offices of the Sheriff’s Department’s Violent Crime Victim Unit, which now is based in the Sheriff’s office downtown.

Scales told her fellow commissioners that Tony Serra, owner of Serra Automotive Management, had agreed to lease a pair of buildings – at 9711 Parkway East and 2355 Carson Road – to the Sheriff’s Office for $1 per year.

Serra was at the committee meeting and spoke to commissioners, along with Parkway Christian Fellowship Pastor Randy Williams and area resident Gwendolyn Guster Welch. Each spoke about the need for heightened law enforcement presence in the area.

Commissioners Joe Knight and Steve Ammons questioned whether the offices would truly be substations. Sheriff Sgt. Rodney Jones acknowledged they would not be “true substations,” but instead spaces where victims of violent crime could be interviewed.

Commission President Jimmie Stephens compared the proposed offices to some rural substations, where there is “a sheriff’s presence.” Ultimately Scales’ fellow commissioners sought assurance that Birmingham would welcome county law enforcement offices being placed in its city limits.

“I applaud the effort,” Stephens said. “I think it is a grand thought. I think we probably as a commission need to sit down with the sheriff and the (Birmingham) chief of police to make sure they’re coordinating. The last thing we can do as a commission is put resources in a police jurisdiction where it is, A, maybe not wanted and, B, where we’re hindering the ability to police those unincorporated areas that are our primary responsibility.”

Knight echoed the sentiment. “We can ill afford to have our two law enforcement agencies having issues about … coming into our back yard. I wouldn’t have any problem if Serra’s property were in an unincorporated piece of the county.”

Scales called for a motion on the matter and the commissioners who were present were mute. Commissioner Sheila Tyson was said to be  absent on county business.

Scales said she would ask Sheriff Mark Pettway to invite Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith to Thursday’s commission meeting so the discussion can continue. As commissioners met, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin spoke to media in the hallway. He said requests to put a police substation in the area had been examined two years ago and rejected, at least partly because the proposed substations are too close to East Precinct.

World Police and Fire Games

Earlier, commissioners heard a presentation from the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau about a bid to lure the World Police and Fire Games to Jefferson County in 2025. The commission agreed to move to the Thursday agenda a resolution to pledge $2 million in a bid to attract the event to the area. The pledge matches a $2 million pledge from the city of Birmingham.

David Galbaugh, vice president of sports sales and marketing with the bureau, said the international event would bring more athletes to the area than the Summer Olympics and would have an economic impact of $75 million.

Commissioners also moved to the agenda a resolution directing the county manager to explore how best to present the jail cells on the seventh floor of the courthouse. Dr. Martin Luther King was jailed in that area in 1967.

“Commissioner Tyson’s resolution is to do due diligence and look at the big picture,” county manager Tony Petelos said. “Do we keep it there or do we disassemble the cell and move it somewhere else? We have a lot of work to do.”

Scales offered an amendment to the resolution with proposed days and hours the exhibit can be visited. Details, including who will be guides of the tour and who to call to schedule a tour, are to be determined.

“That area is locked off,” Petelos said, citing air moving equipment and storage on the seventh floor. “To open it up to school buses and a bunch of kids, we’re not going to do that until we get all those things figured out.”