Mayor Randall Woodfin pleaded with Birmingham residents on Wednesday to help police in homicide investigations, saying police have “hit a wall that’s hard to crack” in many cases: uncooperative witnesses.
There have been 120 homicides in Birmingham this year, 15 of which have been ruled justifiable. Sixty-two of the remaining 105 homicides remain unsolved. That low clearance rate, Woodfin said, “is not because our detectives are not doing their job.”
“Trust me, they are,” he said during a news conference with Police Chief Patrick Smith. “But we don’t have more solved cases in part because there are some people who know who are behind these killings, but they won’t say anything.”
Woodfin said witnesses were typically uncooperative for three reasons — a genuine fear of retaliation, a “no snitching” credo, or a desire to handle matters “through street justice.”
“Those three sides are not the path to justice,” Woodfin said. “It’s only the path to more pain, more unanswered questions from grieving families, a gateway to more violence. This is not the closure hurting families need nor the closure hurting families deserve. This is injustice.”
Overall, violent crime in Birmingham has dropped in almost every major category, Smith added. Rape cases have dropped by 45%, robberies by 37%, property crime by 26%, and violent crime overall by 20%. But the city’s murder rate has spiked by 12%; at this point last year, the city had logged 93 homicides.
Woodfin said he had spoken with other mayors across the country whose cities are experiencing the same phenomenon.
“I think a part of it is where we are as a country and a community as it relates to the prevalence of guns, the easy access to guns, younger people, older people, and the most unfortunate part is, it’s the way people solve their conflict,” Woodfin said. “(Several murders) were the result of some very high-risk behavior such as flashing money on social media, selling drugs, buying drugs, fighting over drugs and gambling.
“The reckless disregard for life is at an all-time high,” he added. “We need family, churches, community organizations and nonprofits to really think about the long haul here of over-investing in our young people, teaching them about the value of life, giving hope to our young people.”
Smith reiterated Woodfin’s plea for “everyone in this community to work cohesively with our police department,” adding that the BPD’s strategy for next year will include greater community engagement as well as the SARA problem-solving model of policing. He said 2021 will also see the BPD “invest in more technology.”
Police technology was a point of public controversy in 2020, particularly with the city’s decision to buy a suite of software with facial recognition capabilities. Woodfin has maintained that the city does not use facial recognition technology and cannot without approval from the City Council.
Woodfin acknowledged that controversy in Wednesday’s press conference but warned that lack of public cooperation might make more police tech necessary.
“If we don’t have witnesses to come forward, then our only other option is more technology,” he said. “As a community, we can’t have it both ways.”