Crime Meeting Offers No Solutions
A buffet of rhetoric and statistics, but no new ideas, from area leaders.
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. &