The deadly and perplexing problem of homicide in Birmingham has raised questions in the minds of the city’s critics about how safe the community is.
Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper said he’s seriously concerned, but that a rise in the murder rate is not necessarily a sign that the average person can’t walk safely down the street, particularly if you consider the facts.
“There is really no rhyme or reason to the sudden increase and there [is] no connectivity between any of the homicides,” Roper said. “There is a growing body of research in the field of criminal justice that supports the premise that homicide victimization is usually linked to risky behaviors or risky people. And, in fact, a person’s social network or association has a major impact on homicide victimization rates.
“For us, the bottom line is most of our homicides involve illegal drugs, domestic violence or some other form of relationship conflict. And the vast majority of our homicides involve people who know each other,” the chief said.
Still, he added, his department takes every case seriously. “Sometimes, out of respect for the families we won’t talk about the specific details that led up to the homicide, because even if it was a drug deal gone bad we are determined to do everything we can to bring that suspect, that shooter to justice and give that family some sense of closure,” Roper said. “So regardless of the set of circumstances, we will still work extremely hard to solve that case because if we don’t that means we still have a shooter in our neighborhoods.”
In their efforts to combat homicide and other violent crime, the BPD has teamed up with a coalition of crime fighters — federal, state and local police, prosecutors, foundations and citizens, and they’re employing an array of programs, techniques and initiatives ranging from old school to cutting edge approaches.
In the wake of a current rise in the city’s number of homicides, they’re betting that throwing everything but the kitchen sink — strategically speaking — at the problem will have significant impact on dropping not only the murder rate, but violent crime in general.
And while there are several ongoing initiatives designed to make the city safer, there is one in particular that has generated enthusiasm from stakeholders that include the Birmingham Police Department, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s office, the United States Attorney’s office, Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham and the Alabama Power Foundation: the Violence Reduction Initiative.
Employed in Boston and other cities now for decades, the VRI is known to work, said Chris Nanni, CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. “Other communities that have done this effectively have had up to a 40 percent reduction in homicides,” Nanni said. “When you look at the [Department of Justice] data on programs that have been effective, this sits at the top of the pinnacle of ones that are most promising for reducing violent crime.”
Nanni and others emphasized that the VRI is not a panacea. “This not a cure. This is a treatment,” Nanni said. But, he noted, it works because of how it targets the problem. “We’re focusing on a laser-like approach to reducing homicides.”
Where it comes from
The Violence Reduction Initiative originates in the work of former Harvard criminologist David Kennedy, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance said that officials locally started trying to get the VRI funded in Birmingham about 6 years ago. “We couldn’t get funding because of sequestration,” she said. “When Chris Nanni, who had been involved in this before showed up and said, ‘Hey, here’s something I’d like to talk to you about,’ we treated him like he was Santa Claus, we were so excited to find funding for it because we knew it would work here.”
Nanni came to Birmingham from South Bend, Indiana, where he worked with the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County. He had been working toward implementing the VRI in Indiana, and when he took the job here, he brought the strategy with him — with the blessing of David Kennedy.
The VRI, sometimes going under names like Cease Fire in some communities, was developed after Kennedy’s examination of policing methods during the 1980s in combatting the incidence of violent crime related to the crack cocaine epidemic.
“The first iteration was in Boston in the mid ‘90s where they kind of surgically developed this program to target specifically, homicides, and they were, within a year to 2-year period, able to reduce youth homicides — which was their biggest issue — by 63 percent and overall homicides by about 40 percent,” Nanni said. “And it became known as the Boston Miracle. And so then, the question became. ‘Well this is Boston. Can this be replicated in other cities?”
The same techniques were tried it in other cities with funding by the Department of Justice. “It’s been in about 50 or 60 cities since the mid to late ‘90s and they’ve had tremendous success,” Nanni said.
When he moved to Birmingham in 2014, Nanni said he met first with Mayor William Bell, who wanted to know more. “That same day when I got back to my office I got a call from Chief [A.C.] Roper, who I had never met before, and he said that he was very familiar with David Kennedy’s work and he would like me to speak to his staff,” Nanni said.
The Birmingham Police were interested as were the staffs of District Attorney Brandon Falls, Vance’s staff and others. They sought the assistance of Kennedy, with members of law enforcement, TASC and both the Alabama Power Foundation and the Community Foundation traveling to North Carolina to observe the initiative in action, and eventually consulted with John Jay to bring the VRI to bear in Birmingham.
The two foundations are splitting the cost of implementing the initiative for the first two years with the goal of the city of Birmingham taking it on thereafter. In the meantime, the initiative is underway, gathering data and putting into play a very different approach toward fighting homicide — dealing with people who have already been convicted and those who know them.
How it works
“We know that .5 percent of the population is connected to 70 percent of the violent crime, which means it’s a small number of people,” Nanni said. “Then when you take all the homicides, around 60 percent — and this is national data — is group or gang related.”
These groups or gangs may not be as formal as the Crips and Bloods, but just loosely organized collections of criminally intentioned people in a neighborhood. Scanning data, which is partly the work of criminologists at UAB, has yielded the names of 100 to 200 people, who because of their social connections and networks, “are the most likely to be the next person likely to kill or be killed. And that is a list we begin working off of,” Nanni said.
“That data I run through the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which yields a list of previously convicted people who can be forced as a condition of staying out of jail, to attend what VRI calls the ‘call-in,’” Nanni continued. “That meeting brings together disparate groups of people in the risky population group for a face-to-face meeting with the entire spectrum of law enforcement.”
“You’re telling them the rules of the game have changed and you’re going to give them the playbook,” Nanni said. “You tell them how things are going to operate. And the way it works is that the next person that kills, not only will the killer be taken down — which has always been the case — but the group that that person associates with will receive the heat of law enforcement. So, you’re looking to take down the whole group and you do that legally because most all of them have outstanding… parking tickets, missed child support, anything that they can make stick.”
The threat of federal and state prosecution is made clear at the call-in, Nanni said. “The purpose in doing this is, the message is, don’t kill. If you don’t kill you’re not going to receive the attention of law enforcement at this level. And what they have found in other communities is a couple of byproducts. One is that the groups begin to police themselves … they don’t want to go to jail for something that one of their members is doing.”
The other byproduct is the fact that the call-in is the opposite of stop-and-frisk, a technique favored by some law enforcement but which can treat anyone in a crime-besieged community a suspect.
“You hear people talking about all the time, middle class people, law abiding people, saying that they’re walking to the store or the library and they get stopped,” Nanni said. “What this is doing is focusing on that .5 percent of the population — which everybody in the community knows who that is — and it’s leaving the rest of the people alone… It builds trust.”
But the call-in, which happens once a quarter, does more than bring the hammer — the threat of serious targeted enforcement. It also offers offenders a way out of the situations that can get them back into trouble. “The second message is there is a way out,” Nanni said. Offenders are introduced to and given the number of a dedicated case worker with TASC who will help them do whatever they need to do to avoid getting back into trouble.
That’s followed up with allowing them to hear from “the voice of redemption” — an ex-offender who has made good on his efforts to stay out of trouble; “the voice of pain” — a victim or family member who can tell about the loss and damage violence has brought in their life; and “the voice of hope,” usually a minister focused on delivering an uplifting message to encourage a better way of life.
The personal touch
Nanni said Birmingham’s VRI is already producing remarkable fruit, partly because of a small tweak to the normal technique at the call-in.
“The data that we have on the first two call-ins, is that the people that were called … were not involved in any known homicides that we have, nor were the groups that they represent associated with a homicide, and that is up through the middle of October,” Nanni said. So far, there have been three call-ins in Birmingham.
“The most impressive thing is that on average nationally about 10 percent of people who go to the call-ins seek help from the outreach,” Nanni said. “In ours, from the first two call-ins, it’s been 70 percent.” The reason, unlike in some cities where the outreach speaker hands out cards and waits for the people to call him, in the Birmingham case, the TASC outreach caseworker calls the people they give their cards to if they haven’t checked in on their own.
“That’s, I think, the step that people need, and they’re actually taking advantage of it,” Nanni said.
In between the call-ins, VRI includes what is known as the custom notification — a one-on-one at an offender’s home. That especially works for people who are not on probation or parole and who therefore don’t have to come to the call-ins. But although the chief of police and the captain of the homicide squad may be among those making the visits, it’s not a bad thing.
“It’s not punitive at all. This is all done from a very caring approach,” Nanni said. “The message that we bring is, ‘We want you safe, alive and out of prison,’ and we’re going to give you a way to get out of the situation that you’re in.’ But the other message is ‘Our community will not tolerate the violence, and if you choose to continue with the violence we’re telling you what is going to happen and we’re going to tell you on the front end so that there are no surprises.’”
The custom notification has been one of the most impactful aspects of the VRI, said Dr. Jarralynne Agee, the program manager for the initiative.
Agee noted that where the VRI team members visit offenders at home, they often find gratitude, as demonstrated in one particular example. “We went to Loveman’s Village and knocked on the door of one of these gentlemen, and his mother in law — his baby’s mother’s mother … came out and she’s like, ‘Is he in trouble? Is he in trouble?’ The police chief said ‘Nobody’s in trouble, ma’am. We’re actually coming to offer some help.’ And she said, ‘Every day I pray that he’s okay. But I also pray that one day somebody will knock on the door and give me some help, and you answered that prayer.’
“There are so many moms, and so many grandmothers that pray for an intervention for their child or their nephew or their grandchild,” Agee said. “So those are the things that I’m seeing. We are not off-track. We are right on the money.”
Agee sees the Violence Reduction Initiative from the perspective of a professional who has not only spent a career working with young people and other offenders to help them change their lives, but someone who grew up in a community scarred by violence.
She grew up in a neighborhood in west Dayton, Ohio, during an era when a serial killer also roamed the area. Alton Coleman killed 8 people and committed at least 20 sexual assaults — many of his victims were young girls and he worked with his own girlfriend — between May 29 and July 20, 1984 in six states, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky. He was executed by lethal injection April 26, 2002 in Ohio.
“We still walked around, went to the grocery store, business as usual, even though there was a manhunt, literally a national manhunt taking place in our backyard,” Agee said. “We didn’t stay in the house or anything, because we were so used to being exposed to gunshots or actually seeing people get killed. I witnessed people actually get killed before.”
Agee said her own neighborhood reminded her of what she has seen at some places in Birmingham.
“Even though we were trying to live a positive existence, no crime, no criminal activity, no guns or whatever, you’re sucked into that because that’s where you live and that’s what you’re around and you just get used to it,” she said.
She grew up adjusting to violence, as many people in violent communities do. But the VRI says, “We’re intolerant of it. We’re not going to make concessions for living in a violent neighborhood. We’re going to try to do something about it.” Because of that, and the hope it instills in offenders and their families, Agee said the VRI has the potential to change communities where violence has been seen as normal.
Leaving nothing on the table
Removing the idea that violence is normal is also important to the Birmingham Police Department, Chief Roper said.
“We have to admit that crime is a community problem, so the community must work with the police department in order to resolve it,” Roper said. “I believe we have to change the community norms regarding violence. The bottom line is this level of violence is unacceptable. And it helps us when the community members establish that mandate in their neighborhoods.
“For too long, it’s unfortunate, but our communities haven’t had the voice that we need. So we want to increase our partnerships so that their voices are heard and these other community members recognize the fact that it’s a new day in Birmingham.”
Part of that involves working with initiatives like VRI that bring to bear more than the force of the police, he said.
“It’s critically important for us to partner with our community members and stakeholders in our efforts to reduce crime,” Roper said. “I wish the police department could be everywhere and do everything, but we can’t. And so we desperately need the collaborations and resources that other partners bring to the table. We believe the Violence Reduction Initiative will be successful in our city, but it’s only one part of our strategic approach to improving the quality of life for our citizens.”
Roper said that the Birmingham Police have adopted an expanded playbook in their efforts to deal with violent crime. But they didn’t throw out what worked before.
“As a police department we have an all-hands-on-deck approach to reducing violent crime, and we have made it our mandate that reducing violent crime is our number-one priority,” he said. “And so our strategic crime meetings, which are referred to as IMPACT (Improving Methods and Performance Against Crime Trends) is totally focused on violent crime. So there are a number of additional operations and strategies that various units of our department are using.
“For example, our police precincts are doing a lot of enforcement efforts regarding hotspot policing. Our detective units are focused on career criminals and other groups that are causing havoc in our community.
“We’re doing everything from saturated patrols to conducting roadblocks to even implementing walking beats in some of our neighborhoods, all in an effort to reduce the crime rate.”
Foot patrols may be as old school as it comes, but in a period where community mistrust of police agencies all over the country seems to be rising, walking a beat has significant value, Roper said. “One thing that foot patrols provide is those officers get the opportunities to develop relationships which can benefit us from the standpoint where citizens know that beat officer and can provide information regarding any type of criminal activity in their community. And so we are really doing a mix of the old tried and true traditional policing methods combined with the latest in technology and strategic approaches that are newer in nature.”
What’s next? Optimism
The U.S. Attorney said that the VRI has proven successful in various places in tamping down gang-related violence, and she said there is hope that it will also work against what she sees as the prime mover in Birmingham’s recent uptick in homicides: domestic violence.
“The early numbers, which are actually pretty fresh, make it appear that the uptick is actually… on the domestic violence end of murders,” Vance said. “These aren’t strangers. These aren’t as much gang affiliated shootings.”
There is a connection between domestic violence and poverty and further connections to a startling fact:
“We do a lot of work with the ex-offender population,” Vance said. “In Alabama, one out of three adults has some sort of an arrest record.”
“In the minority community and in communities where poverty is rampant, the number of people who have been to either state or federal prison is astonishing,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult for people with a record to get a job. And I think that we’re seeing that probably as a factor driving violence.”
That’s why law enforcement in this area are so focused on working with ex-offenders: “Guess what? Ninety percent of the people in prison are going to come back into our community. In Alabama 40 percent of the people that are released from state prison come back to Birmingham. So it’s really important for us to work to create services for them to help them get drivers licenses, IDs, so that their, I think, hopelessness, doesn’t spill over into domestic violence.”
Vance and others see the Violence Reduction Initiative has having much potential. “You have to do prevention work. You have to do traditional enforcement work, which is arresting and prosecuting and then you have to work with the people who re-enter from prisons so that they don’t recidivate,” Vance said. “And the work that we’re doing here, the VRI, is on the prevention end of the spectrum. We have other programs … that take on a lot of different phases. I think the Violence Reduction Initiative is the best-funded, best-organized.”
But she also sees a reason for hope in what helped to bring the VRI to Birmingham in the first place, a local determination for law enforcement to work across jurisdictional, and even governmental lines.
“I’ll tell you what gives me enormous optimism about Birmingham’s ability to conquer a problem that’s just become intractable in a lot of communities. We have a really high level — I think the highest level I’ve ever seen in almost 30 years of doing this work, of coordination.”
She noted the close working relationship between her office and those of Birmingham Police Chief AC Roper and Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls as well as others in the treatment community, and the Community Foundation. “I think that level of coordination gives us all the right people at the table and we are starting to talk about what are we going to do to target domestic violence. We have focused on gang-related violence. We’ve made an impact on gang-related violence. We’re going to continue to do that work. Now we’re going to expand our capability and look at domestic violence again.”
Roper said that fighting crime in Birmingham may be a heady task, but he too expressed optimism.
“I am extremely optimistic,” Roper said. “I went to a roll call today to talk to some of our patrol officers and in spite of what’s going on across the nation, we have some amazing men and women that put their uniform on and they’re totally committed to making Birmingham a safer city.
“And so when I talked to them and I talk to some of the citizens in our neighborhoods, I’m optimistic from the standpoint that there is a sense of optimism from a silent majority of people who appreciate the work that we’re doing and they recognize that there will be times where crimes will occur and you’re wondering, ‘What in the world is going on?’ But you do look long-term and you know that we’re making progress and we recognize the fact that we’ll do better in the future.”