When the Department of Justice announced recently that Birmingham would be part of a pilot program in police-community relations, it represented a sea change in the perceived relationship between law enforcement and at least some of the citizens in this city.
The Birmingham Police Department’s work in community policing has earned recognition, which is why it is part of the first six cities in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, said Joyce Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “The pilot program that lets Birmingham become a model is, I think, a recognition that we’re at a point where we’re already doing a lot of work — some of it people see, some of it is behind the scenes — on reducing violence in this community and on helping the community reestablish its trust with the police,” Vance said.
But half a century ago, the Birmingham Police Department, then under the leadership of Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, became known for very different reasons — precisely for how poorly it related to the half of its citizens who happened to be black. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Connor’s actions, directing police to use dogs and firefighters to use high-powered hoses on demonstrators, many of them children, became widely known as his excesses in response to peaceful protests against racial segregation grabbed headlines in the national and international press.
But the Birmingham Police Department was also known locally for a continual pattern of smaller abuses, foisted out of the public eye against ordinary citizens. Some of those stories, documented in accounts recorded by an organization called the Inter-Citizens Committee, now reside in the archives of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
The bad old days
Consider, for example, “Document no. 35 on human rights in Alabama,” the account related by Otis Spearman of Pratt City:
On April 9, 1963 at around 4 in the afternoon, I went on an errand for the Lucky Star Employment Agency where I was employed. I went to the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Birmingham to pick up four girls who were coming from out of town to find work. They did not arrive on the scheduled bus, so I started back to the agency.
As I was leaving, a Birmingham policeman in uniform named Walker called to me, “Come here boy!” I said, “Are you talking to me?” He said, “Yes, I’m not talking to your grandmother.” Officer Walker had stopped me several times at the bus depot to ask for my identification, so I knew him. I said, “Officer Walker, you know me; you have stopped me before.” He said “yes, you’re the fellow that works for Lucky Star.”
Then the baggage man asked me how long I had been working for Lucky Star. I answered “I don’t have to answer you, you’re not an officer.” Officer Walker told me to answer him or he would put me in jail. I told him that if he asked me I would answer, but I did not have to answer the baggage man. Officer Walker called the paddy wagon.
Then he asked me if I had ever been in jail before. I said I had. He asked if it was for demonstrating and I said, “Yes.” He asked me where I demonstrated and I said at Lane’s Drug Store. Then he struck me in my stomach with both of his fists and at the same time told me to put my hands up… I asked him why he hit me. He did not answer.”
That officer let Spearman go without arrest. The account in Document 38 in the Inter-Citizens Committee files shines a light on the commonly held belief that police officers were largely able to do whatever they pleased to a black person in Birmingham.
A man named Cleve Smith tells how on May 1, 1963, he gave some friends a ride to the corner of 10th Avenue and 17th Street about 11:40 p.m., as he was on his way home. As he pulled away from the curb, two Birmingham officers, riding in Car 25, pulled alongside him, shined a flashlight in his face, and began to question him. When they asked him if he had a driver’s license, Smith said, “That’s right.”
I did not say yes sir. Then the officer, whose name was E.H. Cantrell, wearing badge number 240, jumped out of his car, opened my car door, grabbed me in the collar and snatched me out of my car and shoved me. He made me bruise my arm when he snatched me out. He called me a ‘smart black s.o.b.’
He told me never to be caught on his beat and said he was going to let me off light. Then he asked if I heard him, but I did not answer. He shoved me again. I asked him had I violated any law in letting the people out of the car. He told me I had violated a law and he shoved me into the police car.
He said he was going to charge me with parking in a prohibited zone – at a fire plug. He said, “any time an officer stops a black s.o.b. whether he is violating the law or not, he can put anything he wants against him.” He told me to remember that.
A seismic shift
Federal officials in 1963 decried the tactics Birmingham Police used against protesters. But today, federal authorities tout Birmingham’s example as a good place to build a model for a program called the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.
“The Department of Justice is committed to using innovative strategies to enhance procedural justice, reduce bias and support reconciliation in communities where trust has been eroded,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a DOJ press release. “By helping to develop programs that serve their own diverse experiences and environments, these selected cities will serve on the leading edge of our effort to confront pressing issues in communities around the country.”
The reason for such an initiative is likely obvious to anyone who follows the news. In recent months, police-community relations have taken one blow after another when high profile cases like those of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City — both unarmed, both killed in controversial police incidents — showcase the fractured connections that often exist between law enforcers and the communities they are sworn to protect.
And now, at the current end of a growing list of incidents, there is the case of NYPD rookie Peter Liang, indicted this week in the fatal shooting on Nov. 20 of unarmed Akai Gurley in an unlit Brooklyn housing project stairwell.
Add to that the massive protests that have paralyzed some communities and at times sparked violence after fatal police shootings. Then add the distrust that erupts when police officers themselves become the victims, as has recently happened with the wounding of two officers at a protest in Ferguson and in the fatal ambush shootings of two NYPD officers, New York Police Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu.
Tuesday at a community forum at UAB, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said that mistrust between police and their communities is a critical problem that threatens to undermine the efforts of law enforcement to keep their communities safe. Improving that level of trust, she said, is a “top priority all the way up to the president.”
The fact that Birmingham is one of the six pilot cities named for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice is quite a feather in the city’s cap, and no accident, said Vance, speaking after Gupta’s forum.
“When the grants were announced I actually had a phone conversation with one of the guys in the Office of Justice Programs who is working on the grants,” Vance said. “And he said to me, ‘You need to understand. Birmingham didn’t get selected for this grant because it’s a problem child. Birmingham got selected because of how much work you’ve been doing.’
“And I’ll tell you, I took that as a tribute to Chief (A.C.) Roper. … Look, it is not easy to be a police department. You, on the one hand, are charged with protecting people and that can be dangerous work and lethal work for your officers. And at the same time you have to build trust. And something that I like about having Chief Roper as a partner is his commitment to getting to understand people and to walk in their shoes. He does that literally sometimes. You know, they do these marches that they do against violence,” Vance said.
“This pilot program will help us develop strategies that are specific to Birmingham, implement those strategies — the people behind the grant are really rigorous about using data-driven methods to evaluate the success of those programs. So there will be outreach into the community – how’s law enforcement doing? And we’ll see real benchmarks that’ll let us make sure that we’re doing a good job.
“I’ve always thought that what Birmingham needed to do, because of the legacy of Bull Connor, we have this special obligation to be better and to do more to protect people’s rights. And this pilot program gives us the opportunity to come into our own in the way that I have confidence that we can.”
What came between
Bringing Birmingham law enforcement from the state of disgrace Connor created, to the favorable position it now seems to hold with federal officials did not happen, overnight, said Priscilla Hancock Cooper, the interim director of the BCRI. To her, the most significant event leading to improvements in the relationship between Birmingham and its citizens happened in 1979, and it, perhaps ironically, involved a fatal police shooting.
“I trace it back really to the death of Bonita Carter,” Cooper said.
On June 22, 1979, Birmingham Police Officer George Sands shot 20-year-old Bonita Carter at a convenience store in Kingston. Sands was responding to a report of a disturbance, which turned out to be between the store clerk and a man Carter was with — but not Carter, herself. Nevertheless, when Sands opened fire, he hit Carter several times from close range.
A citizen review board ruled that Sands’ actions were justified. Mayor David Vann backed the officer, despite the fact that Sands had a history of complaints against him for alleged use of excessive force.
As recounted on the website Bhamwiki, the case “provoked mass demonstrations and reignited protests against suspected systematic brutality against African Americans. The Kingston neighborhood itself became ground zero for people on both sides of the issue looking to make trouble. Guns were fired into the air, one person was injured by a thrown brick and several people were arrested in the area. A group of 50 whites, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, confronted 25 picketers at a store owned by Jerry Huff, who also owned the store where Carter was shot. Police kept the groups separated, though taunts and slurs continued to be hurled.”
That sequence of events might seem familiar to those tracking more recent events. “The same community anger,” Cooper said. “But I think what made Birmingham unique — and I credit it partly to the history of civil rights organizations and strategy — yes, there were some protests and violence. However, that anger was transformed into a push around voting and a result of that black people voted in very large numbers and Mayor [Richard] Arrington was elected the city’s first African American mayor.”
Under the Arrington administration those aspects of Birmingham Police culture that led to the most widespread mistrust among citizens, began to change, Cooper said. “We’ve seen a series of progressive police chiefs. Mayor Arrington’s policy and tone was definitely that the police department needed to respect and reflect the community that it served and now with Chief Roper, we see a police chief who has really embraced community policing. He’s out in the community.”
About Roper, Cooper said, “I do think he has set a tone that reflects concern and respect for the community.”
Cooper drew a comparison to the situation in Ferguson, where the DOJ, which is still investigating the case from a civil perspective even after exonerating officer Darrin Wilson in Michael Brown’s killing, recently cited a systemic pattern of widespread discriminatory treatment of African Americans by police and municipal officials.
“I think in Ferguson, it appeared obvious even before the DOJ report, that you’ve got this large African American community — the population — and no reflection on the police force. And I think that’s another way that Birmingham has really been able to change the culture of the police department. Many of the police officers grew up here, they know the community here. And so they have a different relationship with the people that they may be dealing with. Even when making arrests, its a different relationship,” Cooper said.
Birmingham, like any city, can continue to improve, Cooper said. “I’m not saying that it’s perfect. But do think that it’s an example of transformation of a police department. And it takes strategy, and it takes commitment, it takes leadership and it takes time. That transformation did not happen overnight … it happened over time.”
One reflection of how the relationship between law enforcement officers and Birmingham’s citizens can be seen in how both city and federal officials are using the BCRI, Cooper noted.
“For the past 10 years we have been co-sponsoring a conference on law enforcement and civil rights with the FBI Birmingham Division,” she said. “I always smile when I say it because of the historic relationship between the FBI and the Civil Rights Movement. Because of the history of contentiousness, of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover being adamant in his distrust, dislike of Rev. King and some of the things his administration did to undermine the Civil Rights Movement, it was very striking to me that the FBI Birmingham Division would choose to approach us about co-hosting this very important conference on law enforcement and civil rights.”
The conference has looked at human rights issues not limited to the civil rights of African Americans, she said, including human trafficking, and the rights of Hispanic immigrants and “the expansion of civil rights law to include other protected classes, other groups of people. Civil rights law has expanded beyond black and white.”
In addition to that conference, which includes invited representatives of local law enforcement agencies, the Birmingham Police Department sends new officers to tour the BCRI and engage in discussions with the staff there.
How the model will work
In addition to Birmingham, Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Ind.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; and Stockton, Calif., will receive grants in connection with the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. According to the DOJ news release, “the 3-year grant has been awarded to a consortium of national law enforcement experts from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Yale Law School, the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA and the Urban Institute. The initiative is guided by a board of advisors which includes national leaders from law enforcement, academia and faith-based groups, as well as community stakeholders and civil rights advocates. ”
But how will it work?
“There’s sort of two parts to this,” Vance said. “There are at least three issues that communities will address in the pilot. One is implicit bias — the biases we all carry around. Like, I may outwardly just not really have any issue with anybody that doesn’t look like me, but implicit biases live within us and we have to learn to confront them.”
Next, “issues of procedural justice — is justice perceived as being fair in the community. And then finally, there is this concept of reconciliation. These are not easy things to talk about, right? How do we talk about the fact that black people had ancestors who were slaves and in the memory of people that are not still alive but not too far out of that. How do we have those conversations without patronizing each other or maybe offending each other without meaning to?
“All three of these topics live, not just in Birmingham, but in every community. So conquering them here gives us the ability to transcend our experience for other communities,” she said. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, “is a really exciting program,” Vance said. “We fought hard to get this and we are delighted to get it.”
Cooper said that other communities could learn through the DOJ program, from Birmingham’s transformation. “How did Birmingham transform itself from that — from a police department that was known to have KKK members, where you knew you would not get any protection if you were black — and how was this community able to transform? I think that’s the lesson. That’s the greater lesson.”