How Birmingham’s Police Chief Plans To Slow The City’s Homicide Rate
Birmingham finished 2020 with its highest number of homicides in 25 years. So far this year, the homicide rate shows no sign of slowing down. That’s putting increased pressure on city leaders to curb the violence. And a lot of that pressure falls on Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith.
“There are times to where it’s going to be incredibly difficult,” Smith said. “This is one of those times.”
Smith, who’s originally from Tuscaloosa, has led the Birmingham police force and its 900-plus officers since 2018. Before, he spent most of his career with the Los Angeles Police Department.
According to Smith, deadly violence typically increases during the summer months. So, officers have been focusing on areas of the city where the data indicate crime is more likely to occur.
“One of the things we have to do is to stay on top of things, make sure we’re doing positive patrols in certain areas,” Smith said.
Smith discussed his approach with WBHM’s Andrew Yeager.
Note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What you’re describing is anticipating where murders and other crimes may happen. You describe it as positive patrols. What do you mean by that?
There are several things that we do in terms of crime analysis. We collect five years of data, and that gives us more of a projection of where things may happen in the city. We call those areas “care zones” where we need to show a little more care, a little more attention, more patrols, and things of that nature. We can affirmatively say that much of what we’re doing is working in a lot of ways. We ended last year with crime down as much as 46% in certain areas. And across the board, we were down in every area of crime. The only area that we showed an increase was in the area of homicides, where we showed a 10% increase from the year before.
But when you compare that to other areas of the nation, where they saw higher increases in homicides, I think comparatively we as a city fared OK, in that it could have been a whole lot worse. Certainly, we don’t want to see the loss of life anywhere at all. And I wish that we could do more. But we’re trying to work within the confines of what we have as a department.
In terms of those areas that you’re spending more time and attention on, as you’re well aware, there are certain people in the community concerned about over-policing, particularly communities of color. How do you deal with that?
What we’re policing is crime. When we look at a map, we just see a crime map. A crime map with numbers, with dots, with letters, which are a representation of crime. While we’re not trying to over-police anyone or any particular side of town or any particular area, please recognize that in the eyes of crime analysis and crime data, what we see are our numbers, figures and areas of crime that need to be addressed.
You have talked about confiscating illegal or stolen guns and how you’re doing more of that this year than last year and in previous years. How much of an effect does that have? It feels a little bit like trying to use a bucket to empty a swimming pool.
You would think so. Alabama is a gun state for the most part. But here’s the thing, let’s say we didn’t do this. Would we be in a better position or worse position? I would say we would certainly be in a worse position.
You gave a press conference back in April. This was after a particularly deadly shooting at a Birmingham park. And one of the messages you had was for the community to help you out — give us information, to work with us. How do you see the police department’s relationship with the community in general?
Since I’ve been here as chief of police, we’ve done a lot to build a more positive relationship with the community. Just last year we did five food giveaways in the middle of a pandemic. It’s all done to help build bridges and to show that we are part of the community that we serve.
The other part is, yes, I did after a deadly shooting ask for the community to help us out. This is their police department, and we want to make sure that we’re working for them and we’re providing good quality service. But we can’t do it alone.
I have heard you decry a “no-snitch” culture. You say that has to end, that people need to work with the police. Certainly, there are a lot of factors involved with that, distrust being one of them. How do you build trust to fight against this culture that you say is making it difficult for police to do their work?
That’s something that we have to work through on a daily basis. That’s why we have a partnership with Crime Stoppers so that we are able to allow people to provide anonymous information. One of the things that we’re working on right now is a witness relocation plan, so that if someone is in harm’s way and they feel that they want to provide that information, we can help to relocate them.
You have noted that many shootings in Birmingham stem from domestic situations or other personal disputes. What, if anything, from a law enforcement perspective, can you do about that?
The thing that I always advocate is conflict resolution. And I think that it’s one of the things that we almost have to include in our school curriculum. Start with conflict resolution at a very young age. People need to know that in order to resolve a dispute, the first round of what you do should be [a] conversation. It should not be immediate aggressive action designed to injure or hurt someone in any way.
In May, the Birmingham Fraternal Order of Police leadership took a vote expressing no confidence in your leadership. This was not the full membership, and there were others within the union who disputed that vote. But they say they are going to go ahead with a vote of the full membership. If it should happen, are you concerned at all?
I’ve worked effectively with the FOP for the past three years. [There hasn’t been] an issue. Not a problem at all. Recently, they elected a new board [that] decided to take this action on their own without any form of conversation or mediation or conflict resolution. Many of the folks who talk have never spoken to me and never met me. So, how do you step out and make statements about someone you’ve never met? But that’s for them to do, and that’s for their organization to resolve.
You’ve been in law enforcement for more than 30 years, much of that time in Los Angeles. This moment where we’re seeing murders rise across the country, including here in Birmingham, along with this renewed focus on racial justice after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police a year ago, does this feel like any other time you’ve experienced in your law enforcement career?
Absolutely. When I started my law enforcement career in Los Angeles, there were over a thousand homicides per year in that city. And amazingly, over time, they continued to work at it and managed to get homicides below 250 per year in an even larger city. So there are periods and moments in time, in society — and this is probably one of those periods — where there is an uptick. I think that what we have to do is to work through the difficult parts. We’ve got to continue to work to resolve issues and conflicts within society. And then we also may have to take a look at what do we want our cities to look like. What do we want our towns or our community to look like, as it relates to guns and gun violence? And people have to decide, ‘What do we want from our city, and how do we want it policed?’