This is the first in a series of three articles looking at the first year of Randall Woodfin’s tenure as mayor.
When Randall Woodfin was inaugurated as mayor of Birmingham on Nov. 28, 2017, he took time during his speech to address the city’s high rate of gun violence — an “epidemic,” he said, that had been steadily rising since 2015.
“My heart is with every family who has lost a loved one to murder in our city,” he told the crowd assembled in front of City Hall. “My prayers, my energy, my sympathy and my empathy — we have to do something. … We have to better police our city, and in better policing our city, it is going to take this entire community to feel empowered where you live, to make sure we are protecting our neighbors. We have had enough of violence in our city, and I stand before you today to let you know, I can show you better than I can tell you, it will be different.”
The numbers for Woodfin’s first year in office don’t look much different from 2017. At the time of his inauguration, the city had logged 104 homicides for the year; that number would later rise to 117 by year’s end. As of Nov. 28, 2018, there have been 102 homicides in Birmingham for the year.
But if the statistics are the same, the city’s approach to lowering them has been gradually changing under Woodfin’s watch, though we won’t know the full specifics of his administration’s strategy, he said, until later this year.
A New Chief
Woodfin’s changes started almost immediately. Less than 24 hours after the inauguration, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper, who had been chief since 2007, announced his retirement. Woodfin stressed that the move was voluntary and that he had a “great relationship” with the outgoing chief. But Roper’s exit did match up with Woodfin’s repeated promises during his campaign to address crime “in a different way.”
A six-month search for a “world-class leader” followed, during which time the department went through two interim chiefs. In June, Woodfin announced that he would appoint Patrick D. Smith, a police commander for the Los Angeles Police Department, to the position. He described Smith as a “bridge-builder” who “understands that a department is only as strong as the community it serves.” Smith, Woodfin said, “will also be working to sustain public trust and bring real change to our communities.”
Smith took office June 25, and he quickly began changing the way the department deals with violent crime, including adding two investigators to the homicide unit and implementing a 72-hour briefing after major incidents. He combined the department’s robbery and homicide units and created a new criminal assault unit.
Speaking to BirminghamWatch shortly after he was hired, Smith pointed to staffing shortages — reflected by nationwide trends — as a “critical” issue for the department. “Right now, we have about 119, 120 vacancies in the department,” he said. “That’s a pretty sizeable percentage of officers and enforcement that’s not being done. So we have to make recruitment a priority.”
Woodfin told reporters last week that the city had added 34 new officers to the police force since Smith took over. “In my opinion, that’s pretty aggressive,” he said.
Part of that came from a more inclusive approach to police academies; Smith increased the number of academies offered per year and lowered the minimum hiring age from 21 to 20½ years, meaning that trainees would be able to enter and graduate from the academies earlier. But it also came from lateral, interdepartmental transfers and re-hiring retired officers.
Smith also implemented a new “4/10” scheduling system, in which officers work four 10-hour shifts per week, which he said would lead to “overlapping responses (and) sufficient units in the field.”
A Holistic Approach
After a spate of gun violence in September, Woodfin and Smith highlighted another component of their crime-fighting strategy: prevention.
In the first week of September, there were six homicides in the city, including the death of 16-year-old Woodlawn High School student Will Edwards. A shooting at the downtown music venue WorkPlay on Sep. 2 left seven teenagers with gunshot wounds, though none were killed.
Woodfin called the events “a devastating blow to our community” and, along with Smith, suggested a holistic approach to gun violence.
“Unfortunately, the weapon of choice nowadays (for youth) happens to be handguns,” Smith said in September. “We no longer have verbal disputes and fights. It seems everyone wants to resort to handguns.”
In the run-up to his one-year anniversary, Woodfin has highlighted the number of guns taken off the streets — 2,008 firearms since Jan. 1, he said. That’s due in part to partnerships with federal, state and county law enforcement agencies as part of the Birmingham Public Safety Task Force, which includes the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Marshals, FBI, ATF, and Department of Homeland Security, among others.
Later that month, the Birmingham City Council approved a program to install nearly 100 surveillance cameras at undisclosed points throughout the city, which Woodfin calls “a tool in the toolbox of addressing crime … They’re not going to prevent or solve all the things, but they’re one of the tools that can help us address this issue.”
Woodfin and Smith also responded to the September shootings by highlighting conflict-resolution-based violence-reduction initiatives. Even before the shootings, Woodfin’s administration had allocated funding to 24 Birmingham organizations with such programs, which he said had reached nearly 900 children and teenagers. Those programs, he said, could help the city “get ahead” of violent crime by discouraging it before it happens.
One year in, Woodfin said he prefers a holistic approach to purely looking at statistical results. “I think we isolate our conversations to numbers and/or murders,” he said. “I can’t frame it in numbers alone. These are victims, these our residents of our city … They’re part of our community.
“One of the things I would like to see (in) year two is the best neighborhood watch program in America. I believe that I could give you the best police force in America and it’s not going to solve all crime … . We need a really aggressive neighborhood watch program where residents, daytime and nighttime, are saying, ‘This is my block, this is my street, this is my neighborhood, and I refuse to let people be reckless, live recklessly, without thought for me as a resident or neighbor within my neighborhood.’”
A Way Forward
But Birmingham’s crime numbers are still dire, and one demand that has been directed toward Woodfin — from members of the council and residents alike — is for Smith to deliver a comprehensive plan showing how the police department will address violent crime going forward.
In October, Cedric D. Sparks, Woodfin’s chief of staff, told councilors that Smith would present them with a plan in November.
“The mayor wanted to provide the chief an opportunity to get here, get his arms around several of the issues that are affecting our city, and also have a comprehensive plan to report out,” Sparks said. “That plan will (be given) to the council as a body in the month of November.”
Last week, Woodfin said that presentation had been pushed back but still will happen before Dec. 31.
“We’re committing to that,” he said. The plan, he said, will focus on three core tenets — ”prevention, enforcement and re-entry.”
“(The) public safety plan, although it’s led by Chief Smith and the police, it’s not isolated to the police department alone,” he said. “There are other partners at the table which include fire and rescue as well as our municipal court. Post people being arrested, how do we engage? So when you consider re-entry and all services on that end, when you consider enforcement with the police, when you consider prevention — that’s everybody, that’s police, that’s (the Department of Youth Services), that’s the mayor’s office, that’s the school system, that’s all these different partners — even economic development as it relates to employment opportunities.
“That’s how we frame public safety,” he said. “That’s how Chief Smith will frame public safety, and that’s what he’ll present to this community.”
One Year and Counting: A Look at Mayor Woodfin’s First Year in Office
Part One: Crime
Part Two: City Structure and Employees
Part Three: Neighborhood Revitalization