About 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 28, Edward Ashton returned to the parking lot behind his apartment in the Five Points South neighborhood. He lives a block from a Birmingham Police substation, in what is generally perceived as a safe neighborhood.
Then he got robbed.
“I got out of the car and not five or 10 seconds after I got out of the car, I was about to walk back to my trunk and a guy comes walking from the right, and I see him walking down the sidewalk and he says, ‘Hey man, you have a lighter?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t.’ He says, ‘No worries,’ and he keeps walking till he’s behind the building, and then as I’m getting something out of the passenger side of my car, I see that he’s walking back in the other direction. He’s coming from behind the building.
“I kind of got a sinking feeling, like this might be bad. And sure enough, he kind of stopped, turned, looked around to make sure there was nobody else around, and just kind of came straight toward me. I saw the muzzle of a gun and so I just didn’t protest.”
The robber demanded that Ashton get on the ground and remain quiet. He used abusive language. And he took his wallet, cell phone and keys. “He asked me for the pass code to my phone so that he could use it,” said, Ashton, who is an intern at Weld. The robber told him to stay on the ground and not to move. Ashton waited for the man to leave.
“One got the feeling that he was not all that experienced at this. I would say it took at least a full minute, if not longer. There was every chance he could have been seen in the middle of it,” Ashton said, noting that the scene of the crime was very near a business that was open. “You’d have to be in a pretty bad life situation to be willing to go and rob somebody at gunpoint as they’re standing next to a restaurant that’s not closed yet and a block away from a police station.”
When the man left, Ashton said, he sent his roommate a text message from his computer to get him to let him into the apartment. He used his friend’s cell phone to call Birmingham Police, who arrived within just a couple of minutes, he recalled. The officers took his statement and looked around the area, where they found a couple of bullets the robber apparently dropped. “They were there for a while… an hour or an hour and a half,” Ashton said.
“What occurred to me, for a moment, was, ‘I wonder if I ought to stay here? I wonder if I ought to keep living here?’” Ashton said. “I, almost immediately, strongly determined to not be scared out of the area by something like this. Because I think that’s exactly the kind of thing that does happen, and the word gets around that now you have people getting robbed and it scares people away. I refuse to be cowed like that.”
For some people, becoming the victim of a crime is the worst case scenario for living in Birmingham. And crime does happen in the city. But how bad is it? And how much of it is a matter of perception?
The numbers are down
According to an analysis of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) by UAB Criminologist John Sloan, the crime rate in the city of Birmingham is down in every category since 1995. Sloan’s analysis shows that total violent crime is down 133 percent, homicide is down 92 percent, rape is down 39 percent, robbery is down 123 percent, aggravated assault is down 151 percent and total property crime is down 88 percent.
The FBI numbers for 2013 show the city of Birmingham reported 2,852 violent crimes, the vast majority of which, 1,642, were aggravated assaults. There were 63 homicides, 178 rapes and 969 robberies also included in the city’s number of violent crimes.
“Answering the question, ‘Is crime a problem in Birmingham?’ — the question is both loaded and highly subjective,” Sloan said, just before he did his analysis. “Compared to what? Compared to Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville? Compared to similar sized cities in the Southeast? Compared to the United States as a whole? … I think I’m safe in saying crime is much less of a problem in Birmingham than it was 20 years ago.”
The numbers he ran, comparing data from the UCR for the years between 1995 and 2013, bear out his perception.
And if you look at the sheer numbers, the crime rate in the Birmingham metro area is comparable to that in other similarly sized metropolitan areas throughout the US.
For instance, according to the UCR, in 2013, the Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area — which includes 1,138,940 people in Bibb, Blount, Chilton, Jefferson, St. Clair, Shelby and Walker Counties — had a violent crime rate of 529.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.
A similarly sized MSA in Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY — which includes 1,135,074 people in Erie and Niagara Counties — had a violent crime rate of 430.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Slightly bigger, the Memphis, TN-MS-AR MSA, which includes 1,347,803 people living in Crittenden County, AR; Benton, DeSoto, Marshall, Tate, and Tunica Counties, MS; and Fayette, Shelby and Tipton Counties, TN, had a violent crime rate of 993.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The FBI discourages making comparisons between the crime rates reported in different areas. “Any comparisons of crime among different locales should take into consideration relevant factors in addition to the area’s crime statistics,” the bureau states in the Crime in the United States section of its website, fbi.gov.
Under “Pitfalls of Ranking,” the website says, “UCR data are sometimes used to compile rankings of individual jurisdictions and institutions of higher learning. These incomplete analyses have often created misleading perceptions which adversely affect geographic entities and their residents. For this reason, the FBI has a long-standing policy against ranking participating law enforcement agencies on the basis of crime data alone. Despite repeated warnings against these practices, some data users continue to challenge and misunderstand this position.
“Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place. UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.
“Some factors that are known to affect the volume and type of crime occurring from place to place are:
- Population density and degree of urbanization.
- Variations in composition of the population, particularly youth concentration.
- Stability of the population with respect to residents’ mobility, commuting patterns, and transient factors.
- Economic conditions, including median income, poverty level and job availability.”
Relatively few people look carefully at crime statistics. But the perception that crime is a big problem in Birmingham remains entrenched among some in the suburbs. “By and large what matters is perception, because the perception creates the reality,” Sloan said.
Ashton understands that. “One of the reasons I really dreaded telling my mother that I was robbed is because she is a very worrying person in the first place, and I knew that this would just pile it on for her,” Ashton said. “I don’t think it is a character defect, in other words, for people to think like this; I think it has been inculcated in them for virtually their entire lives, and the crime rate in Birmingham seems to them to confirm their biases.”
What the numbers mean
Depending on who is using the numbers, the picture presented by the UCR can be bleak or promising. For instance, the website neighborhoodscout.com, which compares various geographic areas on criteria ranging from best public schools to most dangerous, used the FBI data to point out that in Birmingham, your chances of becoming a victim of a violent crime are 1 in 74, as opposed to 1 in 232 elsewhere in Alabama. Your chances of becoming a victim of a property crime? 1 in 15 in Birmingham, versus 1 in 30 elsewhere in the state.
That website shows that Birmingham’s rates of both violent and property crimes are higher than that of the nation as a whole. Neighborhoodscout.com also shows that there are 114 crimes per square mile in Birmingham, compared to 17 in the state and 37.9 in the nation.
On the other hand, the City Action Partners (CAP), which provides security patrols in the downtown Birmingham area, notes that crime in its patrol footprint is down since CAP came on the job. “Crime in the central downtown area, the CAP District, has plummeted 66 percent since the inception of the organization (1995),” says the CAP website. “The risk of being a victim of a serious crime is as low as our safest ‘over the mountain’ suburban neighbors.”
Looking at the same UCR data from the FBI, CAP notes that “In 2013, for example, the average rate in the city of Birmingham was 8, meaning an individual had an 8 in 100 chance of being a victim over a year period. In the city of Homewood, it was 4, Hoover, 3, in Mountain Brook and Vestavia, 2 and in the CAP service area downtown, the rate was 1 in a hundred. If you look at violent crime downtown, the odds drop to a chance of one tenth of 1 in a hundred. … The bottom line — you’re as safe and sound downtown as you would be in any of Birmingham’s over-the-mountain suburbs.”
Why crime is down
Sloan gave several reasons why crime is down in Birmingham. “This is mirroring the kind of declines that we’ve seen nationally, particularly over about the last 10 years or so,” he said. “Certainly at the national levels I don’t think the numbers are quite as large in terms of the declines, but I know that both in terms of the UCR data as well as the National Crime Victimization Survey…we’re in territory that we haven’t seen since maybe the ‘50s, the late ‘50s, early ‘60s before the Baby Boomers got into their crime-prone years.”
What that means is that as the population has gotten older, there are just fewer criminals, because the older people get, the less likely they are either to be criminals or become victims, Sloan said. “The graying of America is certainly part of the larger story. … Most of the Baby Boomers have hit 60, and that’s a huge chunk of the population that has very much aged out of crime, and they’re not being replaced with young people. So certainly population changes have something to do with all of this.
“If you want to describe it as the crime-prone years, you’re typically talking about mid-teens — 15 to 16 — through about…30. And then once you start getting past age 30, your involvement either as an offender or as a victim starts to decline. And then as you hit 40 and beyond it starts to decline even more so, and then at 50 and beyond, it’s fallen through the floor.”
Another reason, Sloan said, is police are just better at their jobs than they were in the past. “I think, too, what’s happened is the police have just gotten better in terms of the job they’re doing. “There’s been a great deal of outreach effort by the police department to the city, particularly under Chief [A.C.] Roper, and I think those efforts are paying dividends,” Sloan said. “When you look at auto theft, for example, it’s an almost 150 percent decline. I would attribute that to…the police and the efforts they’ve been doing to address auto theft. And certainly their effort to deal with homicide — they’ve poured a great deal of resources into addressing the homicide problem and I would suggest that that’s paid some dividends.”
Birmingham Police were contacted for this story. “Our 2014 overall statistics are not final yet, but I do have some numbers reported from our respected units,” said Lt. Sean Edwards, spokesman for the BPD. But, he said, he needed “to coordinate with Chief first before releasing any stats.” That did not happen before this story went to press.
Another reason the murder and manslaughter rate has dropped is that medical professionals have also gotten better at their jobs, Sloan said. “The quality of trauma care around the country has obviously been enhanced in the last 30 years,” he said. “So previously, what would have been a homicide ended up being an aggravated assault because the guy lived. So certainly advances in emergency medicine may have something to do with declining homicide rates.”
Perception is reality
Despite all of that, however, however, Sloan said it is not surprising that people outside the city still think the crime rate in Birmingham is high and that coming here can be dangerous.
Part of the reason, Sloan said, is how media — particularly electronic media — cover crime. “You know the storyline — if it bleeds, it leads. And when you watch local news…it wouldn’t surprise me that the lead story is the homicide or the rape or the aggravated assault and that’s night after night, three or four times a night depending on how often [the news comes on]. … Those stories are being broadcast over and over again. And it’s not the armed robbery that happened in Hoover, it’s the armed robbery that happened in Birmingham — or the homicide, or the rape, or…pick your poison.”
Another problem is that news consumers are not parsing out the details of where crime happens, Sloan said. When they hear about a crime in Birmingham, they tend to view that as a sign that crime is happening throughout the city, instead, for instance, of in a high crime area within the city. “So no matter where the crime takes place in the city, the message is ‘See, there’s more crime in Birmingham,’” he said.
And, he said, many people just have their minds made up about Birmingham.
“I guarantee if you did an experiment, and you just randomly selected some of those hipsters who are walking around on First Avenue North now by your office and tell them that ‘Hey, we did this analysis and crime’s down gigantic percentages,’ they’d probably go, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I believe that,’” Sloan said. “But if you randomly selected some folks at the Hoover Galleria or at the Summit and you said, ‘Hey, we did this analysis and we found that crime is down,’ they would start throwing anecdotal evidence at you and saying ‘No, you guys are crazy. Your analysis is wrong.’”
No amount of evidence will change the thinking of those who insist on seeing Birmingham as too dangerous to live in or even venture into. “It’s kind of like climate change,” Sloan said. “It’s an ideology. … It wouldn’t matter if we went [down] to five homicides. They would go, ‘Well, there’s still five homicides. Birmingham’s dangerous.’
“That goes to a kind of longstanding perception of cities as dangerous places. That’s been a message that’s been a part of this culture for what, 150 years, 200 years, give or take. In part that is because cities have diverse populations; cities have slum areas, they have rich areas — they’re incredibly diverse in the people and the places and all of that, and for a segment of the population, they’re like, ‘Ooh. That’s not good.’
“Some people have a distrust of urban areas and it wouldn’t matter — you can bring them data all day long and they wouldn’t believe it. Because they all know of someone that they know personally, or the cousin of the friend of a friend’s brother got mugged on Morris Avenue. ‘See, it’s still dangerous,’ even though people get mugged at the Galleria all the time or people get mugged at places of business in Homewood. It doesn’t matter.”
Part of it, Sloan acknowledges, is racially based — mostly white suburbanites with ages-old suspicions, fears and even stereotypes of a mostly black city population.
Not giving in to suburban fears is part of the reason Ashton, even after being robbed, refuses to move out of the city. “I love this city — it is my home, after all — and I do feel that real progress is being made here all the time,” he said. “As such, I would feel that retreating to some suburban haven would be not only an overreaction and a bit of a cop-out, but it would also be to let down my city in some way. Because really, how can a city even be called a city if no one will live in it? The sort of people who gleefully post comments on AL.com about Birmingham being a crime-ridden dump and so on— while sitting cozily in their chairs at their homes in Shelby County — would just love this sort of thing; it would vindicate their reductionist, slack-jawed worldview, such as it is.”
Sloan said that long-held, firmly established perception aside, Birmingham, like the United States, has relatively few places within in it where most of the crime takes place. “You get these hotspots where probably the majority of crime is occurring compared to the rest of the city,” he said. “So in that sense, yeah, there are places in Birmingham that are not good by any measure. But is the entire city that way? Absolutely not.”