City of Birmingham

New Police Chief Smith Talks About Building Bridges With Communities to Reduce Crime in Q&A

New Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith (Source: City of Birmimgham).

Earlier this month, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin announced that, after a six-month, nationwide search, he had selected a new chief for Birmingham’s police department. Patrick D. Smith, a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, was selected to succeed A.C. Roper, who announced the day after Woodfin took office that he would be stepping down as chief.

Smith was chosen for the role, Woodfin said, because of his “bridge-building” ability. “He understands that a department is only as strong as the community it serves,” he said in a press release. “As he works to build a better department, he will also be working to sustain public trust and bring real change to our communities.”

Smith officially started as chief on June 25. He still has a “to-do list” for getting settled in to the job, including meeting with Sheriff Mike Hale and other nearby law enforcement leaders — but he’s already begun to implement some of his priorities for the job, such as hiring more officers and placing emphasis on the first 72 hours of investigations. Smith recently spoke with BirminghamWatch about what initially drew him to Birmingham and his plans for addressing some of the city’s biggest obstacles.

BirminghamWatch: Though you’re originally from Tuscaloosa, you’d been with the Los Angeles Police Department for 28 years before you took this job. What grabbed your attention about Birmingham, and what made you feel like you were the person to fill this job?

Patrick Smith: This has always been my goal. When I started in law enforcement in Los Angeles 28 years ago, my goal was to work there, learn everything I could learn about the field of law enforcement, learn best practices, and most importantly learn how we treat people and do things, and (then) bring those lessons and experiences back home. It’s very personal to me.

I just happened to be working one day and I pulled up a law enforcement website (and saw a job listing for) Birmingham. Honestly, I’d planned to work in Los Angeles for another couple of years, but I couldn’t let this opportunity go by to avail myself to the city. I looked at my home, Alabama, experiencing some of the most violent crimes in the past few years. I wanted to bring whatever I could back to try to help.

BW: Arguably the easiest way to measure crime in Birmingham is to look at the homicide rate, which has been rising steadily over the past few years. How do you plan to address that?

Smith: There are several (positive) things that we’re doing and some things that are hindrances to our success. Number one, we added two investigators to our homicide unit. It’s my intent to add more, because what I want to do is make sure that sound investigations are being conducted. If something were to happen to you in this city, what would you expect, and what would your family expect from your police department, from the investigator? What’s being done to resolve that crime? That’s what I want to give you.

The second thing that I’ve done is to implement a 72-hour briefing. Within 72 hours of a major incident happening, I want an investigator to follow every lead, identify suspects, do everything they can — but in 72 hours, I want them to have a chief’s briefing. I want that investigator to come to the chief’s conference room along with other investigators and people of the department’s command staff, and I want them to explain what they’ve done, where they are, the investigative steps, and what they need — but more importantly, what we need to do to support (them) in getting that job done. Is this a solvable crime? Do you have everything you need to make sure this investigation is covered extensively? The main thing is identifying those who are involved in criminal activity and violent crime and getting them off the streets.

BW: You mentioned adding new investigators to the department, and that speaks to another oft-cited obstacle facing the department: it’s understaffed. How do you plan address that?

Smith: In reviewing the department, the staffing shortages are extremely critical to me. Right now, we have about 119, 120 vacancies in the department. Now, picture this: you have a police department of just over 900 officers, and you pull 120 officers off the street. That’s a pretty sizeable percentage of officers and enforcement that’s not being done. So we have to make recruitment a priority. We’ve got to fill the vacant positions in this department. We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting officers on the streets. We’ve got to make sure we’re shoring up the various positions that are just vacant because we don’t have anyone, because that affects everything. It affects how we police, the crime-fighting strategies that we can implement, and how many people are in our homicide unit and other critical units to investigate.

Most importantly, it affects the community because the fear of crime has an impact on what we do. And here’s something critically important: The city of Birmingham has a lot going on. There’s a lot of building. There are new lofts, new restaurants, new businesses. If we want to sustain that and we want this city to be successful, we have to have sizeable investment in the police department. We have to have a police department that is responsive to the community, responsive to business, and responsive to the needs of the community and the crime that’s occurring within the community.

BW: Speaking of community responsiveness, Birmingham’s 99 neighborhoods aren’t all facing the same issues. The downtown area has policing needs that are different from those in Ensley, for example. As chief, how do you navigate that need to have different approaches?

Smith: The main thing that you have to do in law enforcement is learn to tailor your responses — tailor your crime and patrol patterns and trends — to the community and what’s going on in the community. Some may have more property crime than violent crime; some may have more violent crime. You address each of those areas differently.

For instance, more property crime (means) you want more surveillance. You want more camera systems. You need to follow up, you need to do a little bit more because this is an individual who wants to be seen by no one. They want to sneak in, go in your home, and they don’t want any contact with anyone. But we have to be able to follow up with fingerprinting, photoing, connecting the dots on who’s where and making sure that we’re doing a 360 around our investigative part.

Whereas with violent crime, we have to show a sizeable presence in the community. We have to have sizeable engagement with the community, so that what they see, we see, that they’re communicating with us so that they let us know when things occur — “This is what I saw,” — so that we can piece together a picture. We have to adjust our crime patrolling so that we spend a certain amount of time in certain areas, that we’re doing sound investigations. And then most importantly, that we’re seeking out the most violent offenders within a community so that we can make sure that they’re not committing future crimes within the community.

BW: One major buzzword during last year’s mayoral campaign was “community policing,” the need for officers to have strong relationships with the neighborhoods and communities they serve. What experience do you have with that approach — and do you have any plans to implement it here?

Smith: Having worked in Los Angeles, the community policing component has become a huge thing. The hindrances here go back to our recruitment efforts. We’ve got to have officers on the street, and in the process we have to have that community involvement, community engagement. We’ve got to have our neighborhood watches reinstituted within the commands. We have to have people willing to work with the police, talk with the police, and open our doors to let them know, “This is your police department, not a separate entity within the community.”

As chief, I want to deliver the police department that you want to see in your community, and I want you to know who your neighborhood officer is. I want you to have engagement with that police department, I want you to be active in your neighborhood watch, and I want you to communicate with your patrol officers and your neighborhood captain.

BW: How do you encourage that level of interactivity from the community? Is it a matter of simple outreach and P.R.?

Smith: It’s all of the above. It’s outreach, it’s P.R., it’s activity, it’s engagement. It’s everything. Even in our business districts, I would like to see officers on the streets, walking, on bicycles, engaging the community.

BW: Your appointment as chief is one of the most significant milestones of Mayor Woodfin’s administration so far. You weren’t in Birmingham during last year’s campaign, but having spoken with the mayor extensively, where do you see his administration’s priorities and your own philosophy as chief aligning the most?

Smith: One of the most important things that the mayor connected with is his motto, “Putting people first.” In my career, I’ve always put people first. In this job, you are in the job of serving people, working within the community, resolving crime, working with community members and community leaders, including the ones who speak ill of you — you’ve got to bring them in too. You’ve got to listen to your critics, because they have an unfiltered voice, and you cannot just shake the hands of those who agree with you. You’ve got to shake the hands of those who disagree with you and hear what they have to say. This is the only way we’ll reach sizeable resolution within the community.