U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs
OJP Blog

Building Trust in Birmingham

Monday, July 6, 2015
By Assistant Attorney General Karol V. Mason

Conversations about citizen interactions with police often begin with stories of encounters gone wrong and end in blame and recrimination, so it is refreshing – and heartening – to be part of a discussion that yields a positive take-away. Attorney General Lynch and I joined a group of remarkable young people, police officers and new recruits, and energetic community leaders in Birmingham last week for a frank and ultimately reassuring exchange about the nature of law enforcement-community relationships in their city, one that left us feeling hopeful about the future of policing and criminal justice in America.

The meetings, which included U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance, Mayor William Bell, Chief of Police A.C. Roper, and community and faith-based representatives, were part of the Attorney General’s Community Policing Tour, which began last month in Cincinnati and will continue with stops in East Haven, Connecticut; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Richmond, California. The Birmingham visit was an opportunity to highlight the innovative work the city is doing to strengthen relations between law enforcement and those it serves.

It was also a gut check in the wake of so many recent tragic and divisive events. In response to a growing concern over racial disparities in our criminal justice system, the detrimental impact of arrest and incarceration on minority communities, and the lingering volatility of racial attitudes in this country, the Department of Justice has made a full-scale effort to bring together law enforcement and the communities they serve. Birmingham is one of six pilot sites selected as part of the Department’s National Initiative on Building Community Trust and Justice to test trust-building strategies and determine what works to build enduring community ties. Similar efforts are taking place in Pittsburgh; Fort Worth, Texas; Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Stockton, California. We have also launched an online resource center, www.trustandjustice.org, with news about the cities’ efforts, research findings, technical assistance resources, and other information.

During our visit, we heard from several participants in the Youth Citizen Police Academy, a training program that gives young people a close-up view of law enforcement work and allows them to hear about the day-to-day challenges faced by officers. Several of the youth admitted to having negative perceptions of police before entering the program but said their opinions were transformed by the experience. They told us that they realized law enforcement officers work hard, in good faith, and under tremendous pressure to protect and serve the people of their communities. One young woman said she now believed that she and her peers had a responsibility to “spread the news” about the value of law enforcement.

A separate roundtable with community advocates continued the theme of heightened trust. We heard about a growing number of partnerships between law enforcement agencies, service organizations, schools, churches, and other institutions, including the local chapter of the NAACP. It was clear through the discussions that stakeholders across the city are working hard to change the dynamics of community policing. . . and they are succeeding.

A highlight of our trip was a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where almost 52 years ago four young girls were murdered in an unspeakable act of racially-motivated hatred. The horror of that day echoes in our own time, with a stark reminder that the march of progress has not ended. Yet in this city, once a symbol of racial oppression and police brutality, we saw how we are capable as a nation of turning a challenging history into a positive and lasting story.

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