Birmingham City Council

Approval of New License Plate Cameras Stir Up the ‘Defund the Police’ Argument in Birmingham

(Source: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr Commons and Max Pixel)

The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to approve the installation of 10 license plate recognition cameras as part of a deal with Alabama Power. The utility will install and maintain the cameras at a monthly cost of $2,291.67 to the city.

The council passed the item unanimously but not without some public criticism. Keith O. Williams, a resident representing the community action group People’s Budget Birmingham, told councilors that his organization had written to all nine councilors Monday requesting a public hearing on the item but had received no response.

The group was concerned, Williams said, over “excessive use of funds for the police department” during a year in which the city is facing a significant revenue shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In Mayor Randall Woodfin’s proposed FY 2021 budget, the BPD is one of the few city departments not to see a decrease in funding.

In fact, Woodfin has proposed an increase, from $93.41 million in FY 2020 to $104.62 million in FY 2020. Woodfin has argued that this increase is a result of overtime, the transfer of 90 municipal security guards to the department’s budget and an ongoing contract to provide officers with body cameras.

Williams added that the council had not provided adequate response to public protests calling for police department money to be reallocated to other social services, also known as “defunding the police.” Those protests started in June over the killing of Minneapolis man George Floyd by police.

“Two months ago, there was a demonstration (at City Hall) of citizens of the city of Birmingham requesting that they have a conversation with the council about the state of the Birmingham Police Department,” Williams said. “We were promised that we would have conversations about the state of the police department, as far as funding is concerned, their activities, et cetera. It is now September and we have not heard anything from not one city councilor about this issue. Yet continuously, over the course of two months, time and time again, I look at this agenda and I see more money being poured into the police department with no transparency of what they’re doing. We don’t know anything about the significance of this item that’s being presented before us.”

Since protests started in June, the council has approved a variety of funding measures for law enforcement, including allocating $1.5 million in its capital budget to the Real Time Crime Center in June and signing the five-year, $7.46-million lease for body cameras, tasers and officer safety plans in July. The BPD also has received grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Transportation Security Administration.

While Woodfin responded to protests by reviewing BPD practices, he and the council have largely treated the “defund the police” movement as an unserious option in a city with a rising homicide rate.

“Crime is out of control if you ask me,” District 8 Councilor Steven Hoyt told Williams at Tuesday’s meeting. “These (cameras) are tools to help with that, but I’m just not inclined to defund the police department. … I won’t even suggest that.”

Negotiations between Woodfin and the council over the FY 2021 budget are ongoing.