Wade on Birmingham

Justice and Juveniles: Town halls on crime and education


Top-down and grassroots presentations prolong the conversation

Birmingham is bleeding. After a homicidal four-day stretch over the holiday weekend with nine deaths, police officers have long days and nights ahead keeping the peace. But the city continues to bleed residents, too, forcing schools to consolidate shrinking resources in an already troubled system.

Can we turn it around?

I visited two evening forums this week to hear what leaders and citizens had to say about crime and education, two issues that continue to limit Birmingham in numerous ways.

Roper’s plan

Birmingham’s police chief, A.C. Roper, has been on the job only seven months. Brought from Hoover by newly elected Mayor Langford, Roper faced declining morale in the ranks, triple-digit homicides and a shrinking budget.

While Langford has led rallies with black men, then black women, then a sackcloth-and-ashes prayer rally against violent crime, Roper has pushed the three E’s: enhance, execute and engage.

He talked about them Tuesday night at the East Precinct to an overflow crowd of 100 attendees. The chief has previously visited the North and South Precincts for these community crime forums.

A.C. Roper

On duty: Chief A.C. Roper, left, with a newly graduated officer.

Roper heaped earned praise on the East Precinct’s numbers, citing a high arrest rate and lower crime rates, and giving kudos to the captain and the officers. Like Langford, he preached as much as he pontificated to a receptive older crowd.

Back to the three E’s. He said the department needed to enhance its force, with better facilities, more patrol cars, more resources in general. (I should’ve asked what he could do with the $500,000 that Langford plans to waste applying for the 2020 Summer Olympics.) Obviously, city patrol officers need all of these things if they’re going to do their jobs better.

The second part of Roper’s plan is to execute ideas effectively. He talked earnestly about how he thinks about ways to improve the department night and day. Even while on vacation in other cities, he’ll meet with officials to hear how they’re succeeding, claiming he wasn’t above stealing the best ideas to use here.

He even mentioned how he e-mailed back and forth with his four deputy chiefs into the wee hours. Roper stole a few glances at his Blackberry even as he walked us through his presentation.

What are those ideas? We’ve already seen the traffic stops, where each driver is checked for current license and registration, or for, say, guns sitting on the passenger seat. Task forces have also gone in to hit trouble spots hard and fast, sweeping up drug dealers and gang members.

Getting to know us

The last E stood for engaging the community, and not just in this forum. He talked about officers getting to know their citizens one on one, treating each one with respect. Roper said that without our involvement, criminals will continue to move boldly, robbing in broad daylight, shooting others with cops nearby.

Roper admits that it will take time to turn things around. The residents who spoke up to address the chief and the mayor ran through the expected list of grievances big and small.

But the sad reality is that while Roper appears is on the right track, I see and hear the problems continuing from within the department he has inherited. For example, several officers on duty during the Five Points South street festival seemed barely able to handle traffic control. How then can they keep the areas around the nightclubs safe, as a double shooting took place behind Banana Joe’s hours later in their presence?

Several residents mentioned cops treating adults and teenagers rudely, or taking a statement but failing to inspect the burglar’s point of entry at one man’s house. (I’m still not sure why they run red lights when on routine patrol but not speeding off to an urgent call.) Isolated incidents or a pattern of undertrained or overworked cops?

A friend who lives in Five Points South explained how to me how they prepared for the Independence Day festival, by harassing the homeless to relocating elsewhere. Moving people around like broken chess pieces — as discussed at the mayoral candidate forum on homelessness — doesn’t address the real issues, and deviates from the chief’s own stated policy of dignity and respect.

The police have a tough job, but it doesn’t excuse them from abuses of power or dereliction of duty. If Roper can continue to build on his successes, and weed out the bad apple officers, he may succeed, even a little, where predecessors have failed miserably.

Ring the bell

The East Precinct captain wrapped things up by reminding us that a good education served as the true deterrent to crime. The next night, I went to WorkPlay for the Yes We Can! Community Conversation, one of dozens of neighborhood discussion groups on improving Birmingham schools.

The partners, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and Alabama Power, want citizen input to present to the school board in August for the master plan. I admit that I’m skeptical that the board will actually include the consolidated goals, though organizers say they’ve already obtained the board’s blessing.

The 90-minute discussions follow a fairly rigid structure: Our facilitator takes us through a list of set questions with our answers written on the easel pad. The first half centered what we like about our city, our neighborhood, and what positive aspects are unique or common across areas. While it’s important to acknowledge that Birmingham isn’t a complete hell hole, we lost valuable time there.

We did list the city’s problems (or “challenges” in the ultra-positive slang) and what Birmingham would be like in 20 years if the problems continued. We also wrestled with what our aspirations are for the city’s future.

Birmingham schools

Can Birmingham schools turn it around?

The second half focused on schools, but again, with a short question on what schools are doing right. The answers included “no school shootings,” “occasional community/school cleanup days” and “this discussion session.” That, my friends, is a sad list, indeed.

But our group of 20 to 25, almost all young professionals and the four or five organizers, already know the schools are in trouble, the state has had to step in, the superintendent had to be fired, etc. This is not new, just as violent crime running rampant is not new.

Talk talk talk talk talk

The last question was what do we want for our schools. Not how do we get there, but simply what do we want. Even Langford and Roper said, “Don’t come up to us just to complain if you don’t have a solution.”

And that’s it. List what you like. List what you want. I thought we’d have a 90-minute session tearing into how to fix schools. But the ground rules (yes, selected participants had to read these aloud) said there were no right answers, and that we should focus on constructive solutions instead of pointing out blame.

When I get my car fixed, I know I’d like to point out the culprit, then focus on the constructive solution, and if at all possible, the right answer and not just a guess or a feel-good answer. But a broken school system isn’t a broken car.

The discussion ended, with about two-thirds of the group still present. The lawyer to my right stopped me before I left, asking what I thought of the process. So I told him, not having said but two words all night.

I said that we were asked what our aspirations were for Birmingham. My sole aspiration is to never have a group like this again, because this conversation has played out many times in the last two decades, and not a damn thing has changed. Groups such as Region 20/20 and Catalyst have done the community engagement thing, but I haven’t seen results or even incremental progress in fixing schools or curbing crime or improving public transportation or reducing air pollution …

I said that while Yes We Can promises to keep the conversation going, I would prefer that the conversation actually stop and that we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of actually fixing schools and educating children. You see, we know what the problems are, and we actually have some solutions we can implement.

That’s my aspiration.

He explained that his group was different, that the conversations involved every community, that the structure had already been successfully implemented in improving Mobile’s schools. Still, I’m skeptical that the parents most affected by shoddy schools will feel like they’ve been part of this process.

It is verbal busy work, an exercise in feel-good gabbing with little accountability. Want to improve the schools? Finish the consolidation plan, bring in the state to run the system for the next 10 years, and rewrite the state constitution from scratch so that funding (primarily from big landowners and corporations) can be consistent and generous from year to year.

That didn’t even take 90 minutes, and I’ve already written it out for you.

My secret dread is that Birmingham schools can’t be fixed, that the population drain has passed the point of no return, and that a generation of city children have been sentenced to an early death, prison, or the slower agonizing life of poverty.

We can keep talking, or we can do something. Take back the streets, push our leaders to support the police and the schools, and demand better. Always demand better.


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