A series of reforms for the Birmingham Police Department, laid out in a report released Thursday, are ambitious and far-reaching, but city officials believe the reforms are necessary and achievable. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Birmingham City councilman Hunter Williams discussed the 86-page report, titled “Reform and Reimagine Birmingham Public Safety,” with reporters Thursday.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in Minneapolis, which sparked the 8 Can’t Wait program, Woodfin appointed a five-person public safety task force tasked with providing a report with recommendations on how to improve public safety within 90 days.
“The task force was serious about this job, and in the end recommended initiatives that address community engagement, better policy and better oversight, as well as training and education, and safety and wellness, Woodfin said. “It is important to understand that reform does not happen in one day. Reform doesn’t happen in one week or one month, that it is an ongoing process that takes time.”
Some of the initiatives detailed in the report will take time to implement, Woodfin said, while others will begin in days. Beginning Dec. 18, social workers will partner with officers in Birmingham Police Department’s West precinct to help address misdemeanor domestic violence incidents, he said, noting that 27 percent of aggravated assaults in the city are connected to acts of domestic violence.
Birmingham Police Deputy Chief Darnell Davenport, speaking to reporters, explained that while reviewing how effective the department’s policies are surrounding domestic violence calls, they discovered that the policies in place weren’t as effective at preventing multiple instances of domestic violence on the same victim.
“What we realized is that at the time of the incident, most victims are open to intervention services,” Davenport said. “And so at that time, we’re going to start an intervention program, connecting that particular victim with wraparound services.”
“What we believe, and studies have shown, is that if we are able to intervene at that time, the likelihood of that victim being a victim of domestic violence in the future is significantly reduced,” Davenport said.
If the pilot program in the West Precinct proves effective, the program will be spread through the city, Davenport said.
The report also recommends the creation of a citizens review board on public safety be created in early 2021.
“In addition to that, we will adopt and expand our sexual assault training procedures in the first quarter of 2021,” Woodfin said.
Councilman Williams, who also serves as co-chair with Woodfin on the Birmingham Public Safety Task Force, told reporters that the report is not only thorough but it “has the potential to address issues before they arrive in our department.”
Williams said that following George Floyd’s killing and the national 8 Can’t Wait initiative, which sets eight policy parameters police departments should have, Woodfin looked at the Birmingham Police Department’s policies and those eight parameters were already in place.
“I think that under the leadership of our Mayor, and especially Chief Smith, that we have done an exceptional job of making sure that a lot of these things are prevented before they actually happen, because you notice, we haven’t had these issues,” Williams said.
Responding to APR’s questions about which initiatives may be the most challenging to accomplish, Woodfin said many of the recommendations present challenges, what interests him most is training.
“We need to recruit the best people we can, to be out here in front of our citizens, serving them,” Woodfin said. “In order to keep them, it’s going to be important how we train them.”
Williams said that any change in a large governmental entity is difficult and that in a department that’s done things a certain way for years, and in which people depend on one another to stay alive, change is especially difficult.
“I do think that our officers are up to the challenge, to make sure that they are adopted,” Williams said.
Asked by a reporter how the report’s recommendation for an audit of all department policies, procedures and administration at least every two years might fit into the broader call to defund police departments, Woodfin said it doesn’t.
“Every police department in the nation is different. It’s apples and oranges,” Woodfin said. He has heard from a small minority in the community with calls to defund the police department but said he hears from many more who want more police presence and more officers on the force.
Woodfin said that more than 90 percent of the Birmingham Police Department’s budget goes to personnel costs.
“Unless we are saying to the public, we want to let go of police officers, we’re not going to be in a position to have this conversation,” Woodfin said.