Tag Archives: Crime

Crime Meeting Offers No Solutions

Crime Meeting Offers No Solutions

A buffet of rhetoric and statistics, but no new ideas, from area leaders.

May 03, 2007 

The Birmingham Association of Black Journalists (BABJ) held a Town Hall Meeting on Violence on April 19 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The event invited residents to “take part in the dialogue as a panel of city and state officials, law enforcement officers, criminal justice experts, and citizens discuss crime in our community and possible solutions to reduce it.” The evening amounted to little more than a gripe session by distraught citizens and deflections by leaders unwilling, or unable, to solve Birmingham’s crime problem.

Among area officials present were Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid, Birmingham Police Chief Annetta Nunn, Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale, and Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber.

Many of the 100 residents in attendance emotionally addressed the panel about escalating crime and random violence witnessed in their neighborhoods. Several mothers discussed the horror of losing members of their families in drive-by shootings, other residents seemed to have a personal agenda (one man pitched his anti-violence DVD to area churches) or simply wanted to be on television (the meeting was broadcast on local stations).

It didn’t take long for religion to take center stage. Boasting that the homicide rate has decreased when compared to that of the two previous years, Chief Nunn said that primary credit for the reduction in murders should go to “Jesus Christ.” This statement begs the question of why the city needs Chief Nunn on the payroll if the Son of God is handling crime reduction. Many in the audience agreed with Nunn’s assessment, though, placing much of the blame for crime on children failing to attend church.

Nunn elaborated that it was easier to track felons released from the federal penal system as opposed to those released from state prisons, because the federal list included the offenders’ addresses. Nunn said that anyone with information helpful to police in catching criminals should be referred to in the neighborhood as a “community activist” instead of a “snitch.” One man later echoed his approval, shouting “Jesus did not have a microphone, he had a mighty voice! He was a community activist!”

Mayor Kincaid proclaimed that Birmingham has the largest police force in the state with more than 800 officers, though he failed to mention that because Birmingham is the largest city in the state, it would follow that its police force is also the largest. Kincaid said that $75 million of Birmingham’s $315 million annual budget is spent on public safety. The mayor acknowledged that police recruitment has been slow, but failed to address the long-running shortage of trained officers on the force. He added that he hoped to have money in next year’s budget to lure new hires with salary bonuses. That’s an odd statement by a man who once promised to make Birmingham police officers the highest paid in the state and then repeatedly fought efforts by the Birmingham City Council to grant pay increases to the force.

“Without witnesses, our hands are tied,” said District Attorney David Barber as he addressed why more crimes are not prosecuted. Barber added that tougher gun laws will not stop violence. “They’re going to find guns anyway, because we like to hunt or ride around with a gun in our pickup truck . . . It’s not a problem to get guns.” Birmingham City Councilor Miriam Witherspoon had this solution to violence: “We’re not preparing (school children) for anger management . . . We need to get back to being our brother’s keeper . . . We need to put a policeman in every household.” Witherspoon was presumably speaking figuratively.

Local bar owner and frequent mayoral and city council candidate T.C. Cannon asked about unreported crime. “This meeting was prompted by reported crime, which is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Cannon. “If all the crime was reported, we’d have to call out the National Guard.” Several residents at the meeting blamed crime on a low minimum wage. Another said that the lack of a proper public transit system was preventing many Birmingham high school graduates from attending the University of Montevallo, thereby robbing students of a full education. New Year’s Eve was singled out by residents in west Birmingham as “downright terrifying” (presumably due to the storm of gunfire that is traditionally unleashed on that night in the city’s poorer neighborhoods).

Local officials have admitted that the nature of much of the area’s violence—acquaintance-on-acquaintance crime—is the most difficult to police. “Black-on-black violence is a pandemic,” shouted one audience member. “It’s a form of self-hatred.” Another resident blamed “bullies” in schoolyards. A woman complained that “it’s too easy to get bail.” A young Southside resident told Kincaid and Nunn that “new paint jobs on police cars” will not eliminate crime. Kincaid corrected the young man. “It’s not just slapping paint on cars,” explained Kincaid, smiling. The mayor said that $1.2 million had been spent on 62 new police cars, as many of the old cars had amassed over 250,000 miles. Towards the meeting’s end, a man stood up and declared that the devil is to blame for Birmingham crime. “Satan is our biggest problem,” he said. “There has been a demonic spirit unleashed on this city.” One woman, who had finally had her fill of the endless religious posturing, said “I don’t think Satan is intentionally putting violence in Birmingham and not Mountain Brook.” She received the biggest round of applause all night. &

Pot Stickers

Pot Stickers

Next time you’re buying drugs, make sure you’ve paid your taxes.

October 19, 2006
The last thing the average drug user expects to see is a group of tax agents crashing through the front door. That’s because few drug sellers or users realize that under Alabama law, they could be found guilty of tax evasion for not having the appropriate Alabama tax stamp affixed to their drug of choice. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and various pills are among the substances required to have tax stamps that indicate that the state is getting its fair share of tax revenue. However, that doesn’t mean banned narcotics are suddenly legal. “We have a lot of phone calls from people who think, ‘Okay, if I buy the stamp, then it’s legal to use marijuana?’ Well, no, that’s not what that means,” says Charles Crumbley, Director of Investigation for the Alabama Department of Revenue.In 1937, the federal government passed the Marihuana Tax Act. Initially, the act did not criminalize the possession of marijuana, but its penalties included a fine of up to $2,000 and five years’ imprisonment if no tax stamp had been purchased. In reality, the law was a roundabout way of criminalizing marijuana, since the government produced and sold only a token amount of stamps.

In 1969, drug guru Timothy Leary challenged the law, which the Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional because it violated the Fifth Amendment. According to Crumbley, “There was a constitutional issue which deemed the stamp a violation of the right to remain silent because the dealer had to fill out tax returns and report the drugs.” As a result, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed, which specifically outlawed marijuana at the federal level.

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Many states were apparently attracted to the idea of the tax stamp as a way to further penalize drug dealers by fining them for tax evasion. Since 1970, more than two dozen states have enacted laws requiring a narcotics tax stamp, though some have been declared unconstitutional in state courts. States also enjoy the revenue generated by the fines. The Alabama Department of Revenue estimates that more than $1 million has been collected during the nearly two decades that Alabama has had the Marijuana and Controlled Substance Revenue Act on the books. (In chapter 40-17A of the Code of the State of Alabama, marijuana continues to be spelled as it was when it was legal: marihuana.)

All Alabama narcotics tax stamps are purchased anonymously. “I don’t know who they are. And I don’t want to know who they are,” laughs Crumbley. “The first stamps that I remember we ever sold were to a couple of farmers who came in at Christmas time, and they bought ’em for their wives as Christmas presents, ‘just to be cute.’ We sell a lot of stamps [as novelties]. I don’t recall that we’ve ever sold any large quantities of stamps . . . Most of the people we sell to are stamp collectors. But we haven’t sold any stamps in the past year.”

There are three categories of illegal controlled substances, and respective minimum quantities of each, to which tax stamps apply. An individual must have in his possession more than 42.5 grams (1.5 ounces) of marijuana; 7 or more grams of any controlled substance (cocaine or heroin, for example); or 10 or more dosage units (such as pills, that are not sold by weight). In Alabama, marijuana is taxed at $3.50 per gram (one stamp per gram). Each gram of a controlled substance (other than marijuana) is taxed at $200. Every 50 dosage units of a controlled substance that is not sold by weight are taxed at $2,000. According to state code, even counterfeit drugs are also subject to taxation. “We’ve even seen fake Quaaludes,” he says. “Even a fake Quaalude is subject to tax because it was held out to be a controlled substance.”

A few states have been very aggressive with enforcement. North Carolina collected $83 million in the 15 years its law was on the books, according to Laura Lansford, assistant director of that state’s Unauthorized Substances Tax Division, as reported in the Tennessean in December of 2005. The law was declared unconstitutional in 2004. State laws around the country have faced similar challenges based on due process and the right against self-incrimination. Courts have upheld some stamp laws while striking down or limiting others.

In 2005, Tennessee became the most recent state to enact a narcotics tax stamp law. “It’s patently ridiculous. Legal nitwittery,” Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), told the Tennessean. “On the one hand, it says you can’t own a substance. And on the other hand, it creates a taxing scheme. . . . The law on its face makes no sense.” Tennessee took in $2.7 million during the first 18 months the law was in place.

According to the NORML web site, in 1937 U.S. government propaganda had convinced Americans that “crazed Mexicans, blacks, and fans of jazz clubs were pushing marijuana ‘reefers’ on school children and honest youths.” On the day the 1937 Marihuana Tax Stamp Act was enacted, Moses Baca bought two joints from Samuel Caldwell in Denver. Judge Foster Symes made the following pronouncement at Caldwell’s ensuing trial: “I consider marijuana the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine. Under its influence, men become beasts. Marijuana destroys life itself. I have no sympathy with those who sell this weed. The government is going to enforce this new law to the letter.” Caldwell was sentenced to four years’ of hard labor and paid a $1,000 fine. Baca served an 18-month sentence.

At least the marijuana tax stamp gives drug users who find themselves in handcuffs an option to keep the tax man at bay. “They may be going to jail, but they won’t be having any trouble with taxes,” laughs Crumbley. &

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

Confessions of a Bicycle Thief

In springtime, a boy’s fancy turns to breaking the law.

April 06, 2006

Thirty years ago, a pair of college pals and I got the bright idea to ride our bicycles to Pensacola during Auburn University’s spring break. But only two of us owned bikes. In 1976, Biggin Hall on campus was home to the school of architecture; industrial design students were assigned to the building’s basement. Tim was the friend without a bicycle. However, he was studying industrial design, and thus experienced at operating the assorted machinery and power tools that were part of his curriculum. The three of us lived on the same floor at Magnolia Dormitory. Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us who was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation never locked his blue Schwinn to any permanent structure in the stairwell, instead looping a heavy chain and lock around the rear wheel and bike frame so it could not be ridden away by a thief, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

Aware that a student residing a couple of floors above us was going home to Nebraska for spring vacation, we decided in desperation to borrow his bike for our trip.

We loaded the Schwinn into the trunk of my Chevelle and drove through a deserted campus to the industrial design lab. We scouted for a campus night watchman making his rounds as we crept down to the basement machine shop with the locked-up bicycle. Shortly, an unbearably loud bandsaw-type contraption disrupted the silence of the ghost town the Auburn campus became between quarters. It took 15 minutes to cut the chain loose from the bike. The basement lab had windows that could be seen from the street. Should we be spotted sawing a locked chain off of a bicycle, we doubted that the security guard or any campus cop driving by would believe that we were simply borrowing the bike. Before we could finish, a night watchman walked into the room. Luckily, it was the campus security guard whom Joey, the other friend in our trio of bandits, and I knew from nights spent working on oil paintings in a building nearby. He recognized us and, amazingly, bought our story that we were slicing off the chain because we could not remember the combination to the lock.

The next morning, we drove to my hometown of Selma in the Chevelle with one bike in the trunk and two strapped on top of the automobile (Selma to Pensacola was a much shorter trip than bicycling from Auburn.) At sunrise the following day, we pedaled off on our adventure down Highway 41, a two-lane that led us to a county road, which took us to Oak Hill at the end of day one of our trip, some 50 miles. After stopping at a small grocery late that afternoon to inquire if there were any churches where we could spend the night (due to a drizzling rain), we were instead offered a stable in the backyard of the proprietor’s home a few miles away. Settled into our sleeping bags, we suddenly heard the grocery owner’s wife shouting at her husband from the house: “There’s damn rattlesnakes out there in that damn stable! Let those damn boys sleep up here at the house!” The remainder of the evening was spent on the couple’s stately front porch.

None of us had proper bikes for a 300-mile journey, and our pathetic 10-speed bicycles made the unexpectedly hilly terrain of southwest Alabama a grueling workout. Forty miles farther south by lunch the next day, there wasn’t much fun being had. We were in no shape to pedal all the way to Florida. Finally resorting to flagging down pickup trucks, we lied to an elderly man who pulled over to help, claiming mechanical problems. Three rides later, we arrived at sunset on the outskirts of Pensacola.

We spent the days riding, swimming, and scouting for potential shelter should it rain come bedtime. Each evening we indulged in cheap draft beer and loud bands knocking off Led Zeppelin and Stones covers at beach-front lounges. After midnight, sleeping bags were drunkenly hauled as close to the water as the tides allowed. Few experiences are more hypnotic and peaceful than drifting off to sleep outdoors as waves crash against the shore a couple of hundred feet away. The steady drone of the surf, the stars, and breaking whitecaps were mesmerizing, and a cure for even the worst insomnia. After three days of carousing the bars of Pensacola and sleeping on the beach at night, we headed back north.

The first day we got as far as Atmore, Alabama, without bumming rides. It began to rain. Not wanting to spend the money or violate the spirit of true adventure by getting a motel room, we went to the police station to see if they could suggest a free place to stay. They did. We were given a cell for the night but were told not to close the jail door; the morning shift would never believe our story if we had to ask the jailers to let us out because we accidently locked ourselves up. Having secured sleeping quarters, we walked to a city diner that evening, then went to see the film Shampoo at the town’s lone movie theater. Later, back at the jail, we laughed ourselves to sleep at the spectacle of spending the night in a jail cell with an open door—with a stolen bicycle in our possession.

Pedaling out of town the next morning, we discussed the plight of those locked up in the federal prison on the outskirts of Atmore as we cycled past the scary-looking penitentiary on the highway. The three of us wondered aloud what percentage of those locked up had bicycle theft on their rap sheets. Though taking a different route back to Selma, pedaling again became a strenuous bore, and we reverted to the same lies that had gotten us most of the way to Pensacola in the backs of trucks. By noon, we had reached Camden, about 20 miles south of Selma. While eating lunch at a local cafe, a woman in the next booth overheard us speculating about how long it would take to reach Selma. She was a photographer for the Auburn Plainsman, the school paper, and when she learned that we were Auburn students, she requested a photo with a caption detailing how three students spent their spring vacation. Forgetting we had a stolen bicycle from the Auburn campus, we failed to consider the consequences of having our picture splashed across the front page of the school paper.

One act of theft was enough to last me a lifetime. Tim had probably had his fill, too. Oddly, Joey soon began getting his kicks dressing in black from head to toe (including smearing black paint on his face), roaming the Auburn campus in the middle of the night to steal potted plants from outside stores and residences. He boasted of eluding the police on several occasions.

We got back to campus before the Nebraska kid returned to Auburn for spring quarter. The stolen Schwinn was returned to its proper place in the dormitory stairwell, as had been our plan all along. We even saved the butchered chain with accompanying lock, draping the chain across the frame and relishing the guy’s probable astonishment that his chain had been cut, yet his bicycle was still where he had left it a week earlier. &

 

Crime on the Increase in Southside

Crime on the Increase in Southside

If you know anyone who lives or works on Southside, then you probably know someone who knows someone who was robbed this year.

 

November 03, 2005

For the past six months, Birmingham’s Five Points South and Lakeview districts have been plagued by a series of armed robberies and muggings. In July, Matt Whitson left the Upside Down Plaza at Pickwick Plaza in Five Points South on a Sunday evening around 11 p.m. As he descended the stairs next to Cosmo’s Pizza on Magnolia Avenue, two black males approached. He assumed they were panhandling. “Being the nice dude that I am, I already had my hand in my pocket to give them money if they asked for it,” Whitson recently recalled. “Instead, one dude pulled out a gun and put it in my stomach, and the two of them forced me back up the stairs.” Whitson handed over his wallet and pocket change. The assailants asked for more, so Whitson offered up his keys, cell phone, and cigarette lighter.

Whitson said that Birmingham police arrived “almost immediately.” However, he later complained in an interview that descriptions of his stolen items were not accurate on the incident report.

On Sunday, June 25, at about 10:50 p.m., Kristie Pickett and a female friend were leaving The Garage, a popular bar located between Highland Avenue and The Nick that as been praised by GQ magazine as one of the “top ten bars in the world worth flying to.” Pickett’s automobile was parked approximately 50 yards down the street from the bar in front of an apartment complex. She had just unlocked the passenger door and was walking around to the driver’s side when the two heard running footsteps behind them. Suddenly, two black males appeared next to her car, one slapping his hand on the vehicle. “One of them said, ‘I’m not going to hurt you,’” said Pickett, who re-locked her car and began to scream to attract the attention of patrons outside The Garage. The tall, thin robber pulled out a pistol and she put her hands in the air. The assailant demanded her purse, which she surrendered, as did her companion. Garage customers came running as the thugs dashed off with the women’s purses.

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Pickett complained that it took between five and 10 minutes for police to arrive [the Southside precinct is three blocks away] and noted that the squad car arrived without emergency lights flashing. The police told Pickett that the reason it took so long is because the 11 p.m. shift had just come on duty.

On August 21, a white male arrived at Bailey’s Pub in Five Points South after parking in front of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church next door. He noticed a white male and white female standing near a bag on the ground, its contents strewn about. He entered Bailey’s at midnight to meet a friend, who did not appear. Less than five minutes later, he left the bar. Suddenly, he felt a gun placed to the back of his head. It was the man he had noticed with the woman minutes earlier in front of the church. The woman stood nearby. The victim guessed that the pair were in their mid- to late 20s. He said Bailey’s employees told him that the woman had been seen panhandling and possibly “hooking” in the area recently. The victim added that the bar’s employees had begun patrolling the area themselves, which they said had resulted in a reduction in muggings in the high-crime area.

Perhaps the most dramatic mugging this past summer was a brazen assault that occurred on July 26, in broad daylight, during peak traffic hours on 20th Street. A white male parked his pickup truck on 14th Avenue South near the entrance of Cobb Lane at 5:30 p.m. As he shut off his engine and placed his keys on the seat, preparing to exit the vehicle, a black male who looked to be in his mid-20s appeared at the driver’s window, asking for directions. The vehicle was locked but the windows were down. When the victim responded that he couldn’t help, a second male appeared at the passenger window, leaned into the truck, and pointed a gun. The victim told the robbers they could have whatever they wanted and offered his wallet to the man with the gun. Meanwhile, the assailant on the driver’s side punched the victim, cutting his face as the other attacker with the gun ran off with the wallet.

At that point, the victim opened his door quickly, slamming it into the remaining robber, then falling onto the ground while exiting the truck. The assailant began kicking the victim repeatedly in the body and face, but the victim somehow grabbed the robber and began punching him, finally managing to restrain him and call the police. He kept the assailant subdued until police arrived.

Six weeks ago, McDaniel Wyatt, a bartender at The Oasis, in the Lakeview District, was closing the bar at 4:45 on a Friday morning with bartender Kelly Pierce and another worker. Pierce was in the restroom when a black male in a ski mask entered the bar through a rear window. The intruder knew where the cash register was (Wyatt assumed the intruder had cased the bar earlier) and pointed a .38-caliber revolver at Wyatt and demanded that he put the register’s cash in a plastic bag. Wyatt then tossed the keys to the assailant, telling him that he was going into the restroom and to take what he wanted. “I had already put most of the money in the safe, so he didn’t get much from the register,” said the bartender. “The guy looked like he hadn’t done too many robberies, and I was scared he was going to shoot himself in the foot.” The incident lasted a little over three minutes, according to Wyatt. Pierce said she stayed in the restroom in order not to scare the man, which might have prompted him to start shooting. Wyatt said it was the first robbery in the five years that he’s been at The Oasis, but added that crime has increased “dramatically” recently. “All the employees here have had their cars broken into in the past year,” he added.

According to Wyatt, the police said Silvertron Cafe, which is not far from Lakeview, was robbed the same night. Silvertron management denied that any incidents have occurred there, however.

Repeated calls to the Birmingham Police Department’s public information officer to confirm events in this story were not returned. &