Sixty-seven people were murdered in Birmingham last year, placing the 2012 homicide rate of 31.4 cases per 100,000 residents among the top 10 highest in the country according to the annual FBI Uniform Crime Report. Forty-three murders have already been reported this year, setting Birmingham on track for yet another spot on a “Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities in America” list.
What are the reasons behind such a high rate of homicide? Criminologists and average Birmingham citizens alike say that a variety of sociological, psychological and historical factors contribute to our city’s high murder rate. Statistics indicate that most murders in Birmingham are not random — they take place between acquaintances — and are heavily concentrated in specific Birmingham neighborhoods.
But while experts in the science of crime speak, the Birmingham Police Department refuses to answer questions about the number of people being murdered on the streets and in the homes of Birmingham. That in itself raises questions.
“Are there random murders in Birmingham? Of course,” said John Sloan, the chair of the Department of Justice Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But evidence shows that the vast majority — 80 percent — of Birmingham murders are shootings, and the majority are also the result of disputes between people who are known to one another in some level and who travel in the same circles.”
A look into this year’s 43 murders confirms Sloan’s statement. Carlos Mims, 20, was related to Christopher Gunn, the 28-year-old who allegedly shot him in West End on May 23. Joe Hays, 36, is believed to have been shot dead by his wife in their East Lake home on June 24 after an argument over their daughter’s church dedication. And Montrail Russell, 32, was charged with the June 23 capital murder of his own girlfriend, 46-year-old Katie Mae Lucas, in North Birmingham.
“These acquaintances — who typically carry weapons on them — have a confrontation, and this escalates into fistfights, gunplay and then, finally, someone’s dead,” said Sloan. “These kinds of disputes can simmer for months if not years, and can involve extended family members — the victim could have just as easily been the offender.”
But the fact that these murders are stemming from disputes between acquaintances raises the question: why did these disputes climax in fatal gunshots instead of verbal arguments, or even fistfights?
This is where the real conversation begins.
Mark LaGory, a sociology professor at UAB, says he, like many other sociologists, believes that the Birmingham’s industrial history is a big factor in the high murder rate.
“Neighborhoods with high proportions of very poor minorities have more than doubled over the past 40 years in once heavily industrial cities like Birmingham, due to the disappearance of many U.S. manufacturing jobs that many of the poor and uneducated used to occupy,” said LaGory. “These neighborhoods have since become economically distraught and isolated from the city, and residents in such neighborhoods oftentimes have little to no hope for future opportunities.”
LaGory, along with fellow sociologist Kevin Fitzpatrick, wrote the book Unhealthy Cities: Poverty, Race, and Place in America, in which he described these neighborhoods as “islands of despair” — places where stable jobs are very scarce and drug trade, prostitution, minority on minority violence and a general sense of hopelessness are prevalent as a result of these poor economic and educational opportunities. He and Fitzpatrick argue that a culture of violence exists in such places due to these negative factors.
Sloan also asserts that Birmingham’s murders are concentrated in certain areas.
“Crime is generally not randomly distributed in space or time — you have certain areas in Birmingham that the vast majority of the really, really bad stuff is going on — and these are the areas where the bodies are turning up,” said Sloan. “It’s because of these neighborhoods that Birmingham gets perceived as very dangerous.”
LaGory said he feels Birmingham neighborhoods like Ensley, North Birmingham and Woodlawn are examples of such areas that have suffered from these problems in the post-industrialization age, and that Birmingham’s public transportation system exacerbates these systemic issues which lead to violence.
“A major problem in Birmingham is our poor public transportation system — it solidifies the problem of the isolated ghetto, since many people living in these poor neighborhoods lack a reliable personal transportation,” said LaGory. “A good amount of low-skill employment opportunities exist in retail in the Over the Mountain suburbs, but many people in these low income neighborhoods are unable to commute to these areas.”
Suzanne Perumean-Chaney, an assistant professor in criminal justice at UAB, holds theories about Birmingham’s high murder rate that align with LaGory’s.
“Birmingham has many of the same characteristics of other high murder cities,” said Perumean-Chaney. “From a social disorganization perspective, the density of neighbors afflicted with poverty, unemployment, single-parent households, lack of community cohesion and ability to monitor its residence lead to more crime and eventually more murders.”
Deacon Marti Holmes of Grace Church Woodlawn said that the bad elements in her community have resulted from poor educational opportunities, lack of local jobs and a poor transportation system. She was especially adamant on her point about education.
“When people don’t have a good vocabulary and can’t articulate themselves fully in their disputes, you’re going to have a lot more murders,” said Holmes.
Holmes conducts numerous outreach projects in the Woodlawn area through Grace Church Woodlawn and says that she has “met many honorable people who live in the poverty.” She said she feels that many of the good people in Woodlawn are overwhelmed by the bad side effects of living in a disadvantaged, violent area, however.
“Poverty is not something that makes someone a bad person, and there are a lot of good people in poverty who try to manage well,” said Holmes. “But so many in Woodlawn have been imprisoned by the criminal element, and they are no match for it by themselves.”
Sociologists like Sloan and Perumean-Chaney also said they believe that the “Southern subculture of violence” has something to do with Birmingham’s high murder rate. They and other sociologists say that this could be a reason for the South having a higher murder rate as a whole than that of other regions in the United States.
“This Southern subculture of violence is based on the premise that in the South there is a culture of honor among males and the use of retaliation to amend offenses,” said Perumean-Chaney. “This attitude, combined with the strong gun culture here in the South, is a deadly combination for perpetuating murders.”
Dr. Shelly McGrath, another assistant professor in criminal justice at UAB, also said she believes that subculture plays a role in the high murder rate. She argues that it can partially explain the fact that there are so many male offenders and male victims in Birmingham murders.
Tom Creggor, vice president of the Norwood Neighborhood Association, said he believes that Alabama’s lax gun laws play a large part in Birmingham’s high murder rate.
“If you had to bludgeon someone to death to kill them when you were angry, you would, more often than not, get tired before you were finished,” said Creggor. “When it is so easy to obtain a gun, it makes it easier for people to end heated disputes in the wrong way.”
One of these fatal heated disputes began inside Justin’s Convenience Store in west Birmingham on June 25 and ended with Edwin Wayne, 19, shot dead in the parking lot. That particular homicide was Birmingham’s 10th in the nine-day period from June 17 to June 25. Family Dollar store manager Anthony Jackson works near Justin’s Convenience Store and has had a couple of friends pass away from local violence. He said the whole West End area is known for its crime.
“It’s kinda bananas out here,” said Jackson. “I feel like the murders are senseless and are related to drugs and the general stupidity from this up-and-coming generation of kids who feel like they have something to prove.”
A manager of a Crestwood Boulevard convenience store — afraid to give his name for fear of retaliation — said he feels the area’s violence intimidates the decent people in the community and is a result of “improper parenting,” the “area’s poor school systems” and an “underfunded Birmingham Police Department.” The manager believes some of the crime and violence is due to gang activity.
“One of our gas pumps was tagged with a gang sign the other day,” he said. “And the store has been robbed multiple times for gang initiations.”
Other local residents and criminologists said they do not believe that the numerous graffiti tags on downtown buildings – even an “[expletive] the Police” painting on an abandoned Montclair road property — necessarily mean that Birmingham has a real gang problem. Many local “gangs” are just “wannabes” according to Sloan and McGrath, and are nothing close to the size and established influence of gangs in cities like Los Angeles or Chicago.
“Birmingham has community gangs, but not large organized gangs involved in the drug trade and the illegal arms trade. Instead, it is generally individuals who live in the same communities that hang out together and commit crimes together,” said McGrath. “Our city actually doesn’t have many gang homicides or individuals killed by stray bullets meant for other gang members.”
What does the Birmingham Police Department believe is behind the high rate of murder in the Magic City? Hard to say. Weld sought several times to get input for this story from the Birmingham Police Department on the high murder rate and the influence of gangs, but after numerous attempts, no one from the BPD would return telephone calls or emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, residents are trying to do something about the murder rate themselves. Some Birminghamians who recognize the effects that neighborhood isolation and poverty have on crime and the murder rate have taken community improvement into their own hands. Such efforts have worked wonders in areas like Norwood, according to Creggor.
“Thirty years ago Norwood used to be really bad,” said Creggor. “But the neighborhood as a whole fought to get rid of the drug houses and many of the bad elements, and since then the area has really improved to the point where our murder rate is like that of an Over the Mountain community — barely existent.”
According to Creggor, Norwood’s improvement has been a success story in what criminologists call “the broken windows theory” —cracking down on smaller crimes, like littering or vandalism, in order to set a positive precedent for what is socially acceptable in the neighborhood via a clean, orderly community.
“The neighborhood encouraged police to prosecute little crimes, and thus the perception of the neighborhood by its residents changed,” said Creggor. “I now feel safe walking around here by myself any hour of the day.”
In Woodlawn, Holmes and nonprofit organizations like the YWCA continue to try to improve the community. Grace Church Woodlawn hosts community gatherings where food is served and the YWCA has made great strides in refurnishing living conditions.
“People who live in poverty deserve a safe, decent place to live — apartments without cockroaches and holes in the floors,” said Holmes. “If you can create some economic opportunities in these disadvantaged areas where residents can walk to work and have a steady income, there can be some revitalization and hope.”
Jennifer Clarke, chief housing officer of the YWCA, says that her organization has also tried to bring revitalization to Woodlawn by working to provide proper housing to residents. She said years of isolation have left Woodlawn a blighted community where criminal behavior and a culture of violence have fostered. So far, however, their efforts seem to be improving the neighborhood, helping to reduce Woodlawn’s poverty rate from 43 percent to 25.5 percent in the past six years.
“When you are not exposed to alternatives, and you’re thinking ‘I’m going to die young anyway, who cares?’ then you have nothing to lose by pulling a gun out when you’re angry,” said Clarke. “We’re trying to work with nonprofits in the area to give residents a positive sense of community and belonging in the ways that they themselves see fit.”
Both Holmes and Clarke believe that injecting a sense of hope into residents’ lives can help bring down the high murder rate.
“We have to work together to figure out how to fix this mess,” said Holmes. “The most important part of it all is giving people a reason to have hope. Poverty is relative; it’s how people view themselves that’s important.”