Birmingham City Councilors Voice Support for Operation Step Up

After last week’s press conference announcing the new interim Birmingham Chief of Police, Orlando Wilson, as well as announcing Operation Step Up, Debra Mays, president of West End Neighborhood Association, spoke about what she believes to be the benefits of community policing.

“I’ve been saying we need to have mini police substations in the neighborhood,” Mays said. “It could house anywhere from five to seven police officers for the West End area. They, in a sense, would work with the schools and with the neighbors. They would take 911 calls. It would also serve as a place for residents to report crime or suspicious activity.”

Mays believes that the proximity and the familiarity with police officers who serve the community will be beneficial and could help reduce crime.

“Just having the substation there would help deter crime,” Mays said. “We definitely want officers interacting with the community and moving about, out of their cars and walking around.”

Speaking to the public and members of the media, Mayor Randall Woodfin declared the gun violence as a public health crisis, one “that will require an intense and radical intervention. We must do a better job for each of our 99 neighborhoods,” Woodfin said. “We need more officers on the street. Under the [Birmingham Police Department] leadership we’re launching Operation Step Up. I’ve instructed them to identify officers not currently assigned to patrols to return to the streets of Birmingham and our neighborhoods.”

Woodfin and city officials have called for a renewed emphasis on police officers connecting with the community. Through data analysis, the city’s high crime areas have been identified and will be the focus of increased police presence. Also, Woodfin said he has directed multiple city departments to go into those areas for code enforcement, public works, planning, engineering and permits in order to have a holistic approach to improving life in these troubled areas that have been identified.

Councilor John Hilliard said he would like to see something like the City Action Partnership (CAP), the red-clad men and women on bicycles who assist citizens in need downtown, be implemented elsewhere in the city.

“In lieu of that, we’d love to see the Nation of Islam, church leaders and other faith-based leadership really try and push more conflict resolution measures to keep everyone safe and alert,” Hilliard said. “I’d love to see the police start to build relationships with people. Come and sit down and talk to them so there can be a buy-in from the community.”

Hilliard, who chairs the Economic Development Committee, said it’s also important to put more money into projects that can create high-paying jobs so parents don’t have to work two or three jobs and can spend more time with their families. “Most of the households in District 9 are single-parent families and they’re working two jobs for minimum wage. We have to push more programs to help address these needs.”

On January 30, the Birmingham City Council approved a resolution that would allow the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency to lease a 3,100 square foot space in the subterranean level of Birmingham City Hall. The space would serve as a 911 call center. Speaking to a reporter who was touring the facility, Councilor Hunter Williams, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, answered question about Operation Step Up and how he hopes the city can curb violent crime.

“Right now we have over 800 officers in the Birmingham Police Department. A lot of them are assigned to special details within the department,” Williams explained. “What the Interim Police Chief Wilson is going to do is look at the structure of our manpower and see if it’s the most effective use of that…The end goal is to have an increased officer presence, both in and out of uniform.”

Williams also spoke about the coordinated effort with city departments to help address the quality of life issues that plague some of these high-crime areas — such as abandoned homes, unpermitted buildings and other issues.

“One of the tangible things residents can see, aside from a better police presence, is these quality of life issues being addressed. They might see more code enforcement, making sure the municipal codes are being upheld,” Williams said. “But there will be more plain-clothed officers on the street as well…It is our intent for this to lower violent crime. We’re looking at resources we already have and we just want to shift that around to better serve the community. For example, if we have too many officers patrolling during business hours, when a majority of crime happens at night, we are looking at shifting some of those resources to address those needs.”

Councilor Darrell O’Quinn said it’s important to strike a balance between an increased police presence in the neighborhoods while also building trust with citizens.

“You have to build relationships. The patrol officers need to get out of their car and talk to people,” Councilor O’Quinn said. “If you’re constantly driving around with the windows rolled up and the only interaction you have with people is negative, then yes the perception is going to be negative. We need to have more good interactions that bad. Then you will see the perceptions start to shift.”

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