As this story is being written Birmingham stretches toward its 90th homicide of the year, making 2015 the deadliest year in the city since 2008. But, beyond the statistics, what does it say about the community and what’s being done about it?
One thing it says is that even with an oft-noted cultural renaissance underway, Birmingham is still struggling with a painful problem — although it’s hardly the only place in America dealing with issues of violence and murder.
There are several efforts being undertaken — by city, county, state and federal law enforcement, as well as social service agencies and academic researchers to improve the situation in Birmingham.
For one thing, the Birmingham City Council has declared a war on crime, said Council President Johnathan Austin. This time, he said, they’re not just talking about the problem, not just convening another meeting, or series of meetings to discuss the issue to death.
“People are tired of community meetings,” Austin said. “What are we getting out of community meetings? The same group of people that come and show up and complain and then go back home. People don’t want to see another community meeting. What people want to see is action.
“So we’re not going to have another community meeting where we discuss the problems,” Austin said. “We know what the problem is. Everybody knows what the problem is. What we need to do is have an action plan, action items, actionable things that we can do to not just talk about what the problem is, but actually…attack the problem at its core.”
The problem is a rising homicide rate and the fear and stress, other results that come with it, but defining homicide is also in order.
What do the numbers mean?
Without question, Birmingham’s numbers are going in the wrong direction. The 87 homicides this year (as of this writing) stops and significantly reverses a three-year decline. In 2014 there were 59, versus 66 in 2013, and 72 in 2012. In the years prior to that, the numbers fluctuated — there were 57 in 2011, down from the 62 in 2010, which was down from 71 in 2009, the 88 in 2008, 93 in 2007 and the 109 in 2006. Ten years ago, in 2005, there were 105 homicides in Birmingham.
Not all homicides are murders. Homicide can include any number of causes of unlawful deaths, including self-defense cases, accidental killings whether with a weapon, a car or some other means, and, for the sake of reporting, even suspicious deaths where the cause is unknown.
“Although the term homicide is sometimes used synonymously with murder, homicide is broader in scope than murder,” as noted, among other places, at legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com. “Murder is a form of criminal homicide; other forms of homicide might not constitute criminal acts. These homicides are regarded as justified or excusable.”
The homicide rate in Birmingham would not necessarily equal the murder rate, despite clear correlations between the two and the fact that many people use the terms synonymously. Of the 59 reported homicides in Birmingham in 2014, for instance, 52 were categorized in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports as “murder or non-negligent manslaughter.”
The variation simply means that not all cases of homicide are murder. Nevertheless, the numbers of murders are also trending up.
Why are the numbers trending up? Experts don’t lay all the blame on one factor. But Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls said that Birmingham’s numbers are likely related to some of the reasons behind crime trends across the country.
“This is something that several cities around the country are seeing, is an increase in homicides,” Falls said, citing Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, among others. “There are a few different theories as to why we’re seeing the increase,” Falls said. “One is that as we have seen historic lows in the past two to three years — and Birmingham is one place where we’ve had the lowest homicide rate since the late 60s — there’s one theory that those lows, they may be as low as we’re ever going to see in the United States and that from there it’s just going to fluctuate up and down moving forward.”
A second theory, which Falls said is unlikely to be affecting Birmingham, is the so-called Ferguson Effect, named after the town in Missouri where racial unrest boiled over into intense and prolonged protests and confrontations after a white police officer shot an unarmed black teenager. Some police agencies after Ferguson and what seems to be an endless list of similar incidents across the country actually “may not be policing as aggressively as they have in the past for fear of someone accusing them of acting inappropriately,” Falls said. Not an issue in Birmingham, he noted.
That leaves a third factor that may be having a particular effect locally.
Drugs at the root
“A third [theory] that I do worry about, more so than the others, is that we’re seeing as huge increase in the heroin in Birmingham, in Jefferson County as a whole,” Falls said. “A lot of cities across the country are seeing the same influx of heroin. My worry is we may be seeing the beginning of a heroin war, like the cocaine war when there was huge increase in violent crime based on people who were fighting it out for sales territory, cocaine territory, and then the other effects that went on because of an increase in cocaine. So there’s some worry that we may be seeing the same thing based on heroin.”
He said that possibility is based mostly on the timing of “both the heroin explosion and the violent crime explosion nationwide — that both are happening at the same time.
“Certainly I do see an increase in cases that are drug-involved in some way,” Falls said.
“Right now, it is very dangerous to be a drug dealer or a customer of a drug dealer because people know drug dealers have money. They know they have drugs. And they are pulling guns on them at drug deals and it’s turning either into a robbery and a shooting or a gun battle in some way. The same is happening with people who are going to buy drugs.”
Drug cases that lead to killings may be hard to define as such and difficult to prove in court, Falls said. “It’s difficult to get to the bottom of those types of cases because obviously no one wants to talk about what was happening — why they were where they were. No one wants to admit that this was a drug deal that went bad and it makes it really difficult for law enforcement to get to the truth. It makes it difficult to prosecute.
“It naturally causes a jury to question the credibility of the witnesses who do come in to testify, when either they, one, admit that it was a drug deal or two, deny that it was a drug deal but it has all the makings of a drug deal. So if someone’s not willing to fess up to that they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.”
Violence that hits home
The district attorney said that another cause of increased violence, including homicide, is domestic violence. That doesn’t always mean that one person in a relationship shoots their significant other, but “domestic-related situations where there’s a run-in between the ex-boyfriend and the new boyfriend, ex-girlfriend and the new girlfriend, and … we’re seeing a lot of that spill over into, or rise to, the level of violence.
“There’s just a friction, whether it’s because children are involved, or whether it’s just because people can’t walk away from a relationship that’s over, and it’s rising to the level of people getting angry with each other, getting into arguments, getting into fights and somebody pulling a weapon and shooting.”
Domestic situations getting out of control are difficult for law enforcement to predict or prevent, Falls said. “That is just some human emotion that is going haywire. It would definitely help the numbers in Birmingham for people to just walk away from these situations. Don’t let them get to the point of violence.”
Domestic and other interpersonal violence seems to be at the root of many homicides in Birmingham, by all accounts.
“Crime is on the rise across the nation,” Austin said. “It’s not something that’s specific to Birmingham. … What I will say, based on my conversations with the police chief, is that a lot of the crime that’s taking place is happening between parties who have some association with each other. In other words, they’re not random acts of violence.”
A significant number of cases relate to what Falls called “arguments that have grown into feuds over time.” In such cases, he said, “People are reacting when they’re both in a club or both in a place where they both have guns and one…pulls out a weapon and threatens the other and causes the other person to pull out his weapon. And when it reaches that point, there is in all likelihood going to be a shooting. It’s just a question of whether or not someone is going to get hit and killed.”
“We’ve seen that for years,” Falls said. “People are willing to shoot and kill to protect their reputation. When that’s all you’ve got, then you’ll resort to violence to protect it, to keep your…street cred, or your basic reputation. No one wants to be dissed or diminished.”
That kind of homicide is hard for many people to fathom, Falls said. “They never make any sense. Sitting back and looking at this, saying ‘What should reasonable people do?’ They never make sense to me. Even when you look to how the argument started in the first place.”
War on Crime: The personal touch
Combatting that kind of personal conflict-fueled homicide is at the heart of the strategy Austin calls the city council’s “war on crime.”
“My opinion, it looks as if we need to do as much as we can as a community to educate our citizens on understanding that violence, the result of a disagreement or misunderstanding, you don’t resolve those types of disagreements or misunderstandings through violence,” Austin said. “Resolution comes through communication. In every relationship, whether it’s between father son, sister-brother, husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, employee-employer — in every relationship that we have at whatever level of relationship that we have, the best way to foster a good relationship is through communication.
“And so what we’re doing with the clergy and with community leaders and those across this city is talking to them about how best can we work to open those lines of communication, to better inform our citizens about other ways to resolve conflict. I believe this all really comes down to conflict resolution and education on conflict resolution. That’s what I think we should be doing and I believe we’ll see far greater results.”
Austin believes that the entire community has to be involved in this educational effort, like a team. “We have to be tacticians, strategists, chess players, understanding what is the problem that exists in our community and be strategic about how we address and attack that problem,” he said. “We’re not going to sit back and be on the defense all the time … We’re taking an offensive approach. Not defensive.”
The team, Austin said, includes not just police, but clergy, block watch officers, neighborhood officers and schoolteachers. And the approach has to be not through community meetings so much as through meeting the community where it lives.
“We have certain plays that we will continue to unveil over the next several months,” he said. “You will begin to see our offensive strategy unfold and that would include workshops. That would include drives…to help reach those who we need to reach. That would include going into the neighborhoods, going into the dope houses, going into the shot houses, going to where the people are, going into the ghettos, going into the projects. Not asking people to come to us but going to them.”
Austin said that the council is committed to taking the fight against violence to the streets of the city. “All I need is a few good men and women who are willing to go with me and we will make a difference in our community and that’s what we are committed to doing and we’re going to do it,” he said.
“We have council members now who are already going into these neighborhoods, going into the shot houses, going into the dope houses, going into the, wherever the people are and really talking about the issues that we see and teaching them how to address them. But we’re going to do it more collectively and more strategically, and that’s what you see as the council continues to move.”
In the next few weeks and months, he said, the community will start to notice how the council lives up to their commitment to the war on crime.
The problem of guns
Falls also advocates an approach that would involve many areas of the community coming to bear on the problem. And part of it has to do with changing attitudes, both about how to resolve personal disputes, and about the use of guns, he said.
“From a public protection position, I think Chief Roper and I would agree to say, people have got to put down their guns,” Falls said, noting that there are a number of initiatives in place or being enacted, such as My Brother’s Keeper, the Violence Reduction Initiative and the Gun Violence Initiative, concentrating on the use of firearms in crime.
“We have too many people who are dying for no good reason. We have too many innocent people who are getting caught in the crossfire. This is not what we want for our city. This is not what is best for Birmingham and Jefferson County. And the police can’t always predict — regardless of the initiative, regardless of the method that they use – there are things that are happening that they cannot predict because it is just human emotion taking control.”
Falls said he was reminded of something Municipal Court Judge Andre Sparks used to say when he worked as a referee in juvenile court cases: “Embrace your inner nerd.”
“Your reputation is not worth somebody’s life,” Falls said. “It really isn’t. There are other paths to be taken out there that will help you, help your family. Nobody wants to see you dead. Nobody wants to see you in prison. You’ve got to embrace that inner nerd and walk away and pick a better path.”
Next week: A look at some of the initiatives underway to decrease the number of murders in Birmingham