Police Fight Alabama’s Gun Culture, Stress Gun Safety Education in Effort to Reduce Violent Crime

(Source: Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr Commons and Max Pixel)
  • Alabama has the highest rate of concealed gun permits in the country.
  • Jefferson County has the lowest permit fee in the state.
  • One in five adults has a permit to carry a gun.

Birmingham rang in the new year with a chorus of gunfire.

Birmingham Police Chief Patrick D. Smith told the City Council Wednesday that his department’s ShotSpotter technology had detected 960 gunshots — most attributed to celebratory firing into the air — throughout the city on New Year’s Eve, an increase from the 469 shots recorded Dec. 31, 2017.

That uptick is partially due to an expansion of the ShotSpotter program, which was increased by roughly 30 percent in 2018. “The numbers are going to higher because we’re detecting more,” Smith said.

But the increase also is indicative of the city’s gun culture, in which a large proportion of adults wield handguns, many with little knowledge or regard for gun safety.

“It’s stupid,” Mayor Randall Woodfin said Wednesday. “The people who committed these acts, it was very stupid of them to do, because any bullet that goes up must come down.”

Concern over the gunshots was in some ways an appropriate way for city officials to start 2019, which follows one of the city’s most violent years in recent memory. 2018, with 109 recorded homicides, narrowly avoided 2017’s 23-year high of 117 homicides.

In a county where gun permits are notably easy to obtain — and in which illegal guns are rampant — law enforcement heads are adapting their strategies to increase awareness of gun safety and lower violent crime rates.

Gun Safety Education

Alabama has the highest percentage of adults with concealed handgun permits in the U.S., according to a report by the Crime Prevention Research Center.

Source: Max Pixel

Approximately 22.1 percent of Alabama adults have concealed handgun permits — more than three times the national average of 7.14 percent. The study, published in August, extrapolated the total based on data from Baldwin, Cleburne, Cullman, Jackson, Jefferson, Madison, Montgomery and Shelby counties. Alabama does not collect statewide data on concealed carry permits.

Some counties are making it much easier to obtain those permits as well. In October, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office announced that residents could apply through permits online, without ever appearing in the office. The license fee is $7.50 per year for up to five years — the lowest fee in the state.

That change was made under Sheriff Mike Hale, who was defeated in November by Democratic challenger Mark Pettway. Pettway will take office Jan. 14, and he said he plans to make gun safety a priority of his office.

“We want to offer (gun owners) free training,” Pettway said. “I do realize that most folks who have guns have never had training, so we want them to come out to our range to get free training. We’re going to instruct them how to use a gun. We’re going to show them how to clean a weapon, and we want to make sure they have a way to make sure their weapon is placed safely.”

Smith concurred. “Responsible gun ownership, that’s what we’re talking about,” he said. “We have to have complete education of the public. We have to start early in talking about celebratory gunfire, not just for New Years’  but for the Fourth of July and other times of the year to do everything we can to educate the public. That’s why we have implemented the ShotSpotter. That’s why we’re backing it up with (surveillance) cameras; that’s why we’re intending to back it up with further enforcement, because we’ve got to explain to the public the severity of this.

“This love affair with the handgun has existed for quite some time, but we’ve got to have some kind of educational component to it,” he said.

Enforcement Against Violent Crime

Illegal firearms are a large part of the conversation as well, though the prevalence of interstate arms trafficking makes the exact numbers difficult to measure. Michael P. Knight, a special agent and public information officer with the ATF, told BirminghamWatch in September that cooperation among regional law enforcement agencies had led to “a significant seizure of firearms or recovery of firearms” in the Birmingham area.

Woodfin told reporters in November that law enforcement had taken 2,008 guns off the street since 2018 started. “We’ve been more aggressive with stops, and part of those stops have allowed us (to) confiscate weapons that are either illegal or have done some harm or been stolen,” he said. “That’s a lot of guns to take off the street.”

Woodfin had promised a presentation of chief Smith’s public safety plan by the end of 2018. That presentation hasn’t happened in any formal way, although Smith maintains that public safety was an important component of a series of town hall meetings that have been held in each district.

Smith said more such presentations will happen in January, but he highlights the changes he has made in the department since taking office in June.

“Our homicides increased over a period of years, but there were no adjustments made internally to the police department,” he said.  In six months, he said, he’s implemented a 72-hour briefing period for violent crime cases, assigned more officers to investigate robberies and homicides and changed the department’s shift structure to a 4-10 model. Having officers work four 10-hour days keeps more officers are on duty during peak hours, he said.

There’s also been a greater emphasis on visibility of patrol cars, including a design change to make them more striking and an increase in checkpoints throughout the city. Via those checkpoints, Smith said, police “are able to slow traffic down in the city. We can see who’s driving and communicating or at least passing certain critical areas within the city, and we’re also able to reduce crime in that area.”

“So for instance, if we have an area where we notice an uptick in crime, should we triangulate on that area with various checkpoints, we can essentially reduce crime by having more of a presence, by stopping the people who are moving in critical areas and also having an overall impact in what’s happening in that area.”

Those changes, Smith said, are yielding results.

“The biggest result I’ve seen is our clearance rate for homicides,” Smith said. “When I arrived here, it’s almost embarrassing to say that we were having around a 29 percent clearance rate,” meaning that charges were brought against a suspect in roughly a third of homicide cases. “Within this timeframe we’ve gotten back up to, I want to say, 52 or 53 percent, and we’re going to keep pushing that even higher.”

The Year Ahead

One way the department will continue to address crime in 2019, Smith said, is through the implementation of PredPol, a software that can predict specific locations and times when crimes are more likely to occur.

“We can start breaking down what we need to do, where our patrol cars need to be to reduce crime, and also we can break it down by beat, in terms of how much presence we need to have in a certain area to drive down crime,” Smith said. “This will address us from a historical perspective of where we need to go, of where (crimes) have occurred, but also let us know where we need to be in the future.”

But the key, he said, is regional cooperation — something that other local law enforcement agencies have also emphasized. Local law enforcement “has simply not been working together,” Smith said. “We have to have one congruent plan so that our crime center is working so that we can get real-time information out to our officers.”

He points to a recent order from Birmingham’s City Council to install nearly 100 surveillance cameras throughout the city, which would feed back to the Jefferson County Metro Area Crime Center, which serves as a communications hub for 16 local law enforcement agencies.

“We need to make sure that our ShotSpotter is working with the cameras that we’re putting in via Alabama Power, our license plate readers — that all of this information is coming into one central hub so that when you call for service, we’re not only just taking your call, we’re pulling up a camera and we’re also getting the information that we have out to our officers on the street,” Smith said. “We’re not just telling our officers it’s a blue Maxima. We’re telling them it’s a blue Maxima with a white fender and the donut on the left-hand side. We need to get back to being completely focused on what law enforcement is supposed to do for this city.”