What if we could dramatically cut the number of homicides in Birmingham?

Posted in Comeback Town, January 11, 2016

 

If you could prevent people from killing others, would you do something about it?

This is the question that the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham asked itself in 2014. The Foundation encountered a strategy being implemented around the country with dramatic results:  reducing homicides by up to 40% while at the same time decreasing incarceration, building police legitimacy, and offering those deemed the most likely to kill or be killed a way out.

Sound too good to be to be true?

Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative

This is exactly what is going on in Birmingham. Known as the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative (or BVRI), it is a new way of policing that brings together local, state and federal enforcement agencies to focus collectively on the most violent offenders.

Contrary to popular opinion, the City of Birmingham as a whole is not dangerous. Research shows violence concentrated in “micro” places, rather than in “dangerous neighborhoods.” Blocks, corners, and buildings representing just five or six percent of an entire city will drive half of its serious crime. The good news is that these concentrations create high-payoff opportunities to intervene.

We know two things based on national data. First, about 0.5% of the population is connected to roughly 70% of the violent crime. What this means is that a small number of individuals drives the majority of the violence. Secondly, of all homicides committed, up to 60% are group or gang related.

This is the population that BVRI seeks to affect. By identifying the 0.5%, BVRI proactively calls them in to let them know that the rules of the game have changed and to offer them a way out. This intervention is known as a “call-in” and is done quarterly with groups of 20-30 individuals in order to keep the message alive.

How participants are selected

Participants are selected to represent as many different groups and gangs as possible in order to disseminate the message widely. They are told to take the message back to their members because moving forward, the rules of the game have changed. The message at the call-in is simple:  this is not a negotiation; we want you safe, alive and out of prison; your community needs the violence to stop; there is help for you if you want it; if you choose not to abide by the rules, you and the gang you belong to will receive the full attention of law enforcement.

How this approach differs is that when a group related homicide occurs, law enforcement will come after not only the killer but everyone in the group for whatever offense they can make stick, no matter how petty. When a gang/group member believe that violence will bring attention to the whole group, they begin to police themselves so that they do not go to jail due to the errant act of one of their members. Over time, groups learn that by not killing and by not being the most violent group, they avoid the attention of law enforcement. Ultimately, this drives down violent crime.

Those attending the call-ins are identified through predictive analytics and social networking analysis utilizing histories of past homicides to predict the likelihood of future actions. It is known as “smart-on-crime” by identifying those most likely to be the next individuals to either kill or be killed.

Builds trust between community and law enforcement

This is the opposite of stop-and-frisk which makes everyone within the affected community suspect. By focusing on a clearly identified few, it leaves those law abiding citizens alone which, over time, has proven to build trust between the community and law enforcement agencies.

There are three important parts of this strategy:  1) Law enforcement –holding violent groups accountable for the actions of its members; 2) Support and outreach –providing group members a way out, and; 3) Moral voice –rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the affected communities so that communities feel empowered to police themselves.

To date, there have been three call-ins:  June, September and December, with the next one being planned for March 2016. We know the strategy works, but it will take time. Cities that have implemented this strategy have experienced a decline in homicide rates over the course of two years. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but it is worth it because we want these young men safe, alive and out of prison.

Encouraging results

The most encouraging result has been that 70% of those attending the call-ins have sought help through a dedicated hotline set up specifically for this initiative and staffed by UAB’s TASC (Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities).

The purpose of this strategy, plain and simple, is to reduce homicides with a laser like focus on those most likely to commit the next violent crime. We recognize that it is a treatment, not a cure. For this reason, it is meant to compliment all the great efforts of those in the community working on prevention.

This initiative is being funded by the Community Foundation and Alabama Power Foundation with the support of the Mayor’s office. The effort is being directed by its project manager, Dr. Jarralynne Agee.

At a time when many police departments are under fire for aggressive tactics, particularly in historically troubled and deeply angry, minority communities, advocates say predictive policing can help improve relations by leading with intervention rather than arrest and incarceration. The trust this strategy builds over time allows the affected community to work in unison with law enforcement in order for the community to begin to police itself.

We are very fortunate in Birmingham that our law enforcement agencies, city government and social service providers have a history of working well together. This strategy helps to build an even stronger working partnership among these exiting resources to reach out to the community and the young men of color that are most affected by violent crimes. For this reason, the Birmingham Police Department and the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham are proud to be teaming together in this important initiative to build a safer community.

Chris Nanni joined the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham as CEO/President in February 2014. With assets of more than $250 million, the Community Foundation engages philanthropists and nonprofits in addressing the community’s most pressing needs.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Chief Roper has over 29 years of law enforcement experience. He was appointed as Birmingham’s thirty-third Chief of Police in 2007. He commands the largest municipal police department in the state with over 1,100 full time employees.