Activists Who Helped Elect Birmingham Mayor Balk at Police Expansion Plans
Mayor Randall Woodfin is increasing police funding and ignoring calls for non-law enforcement public safety alternatives.
Mayor Randall Woodfin is up for re-election this year in Birmingham, Alabama, but some of those who backed his 2017 campaign—which was supported by national figures like Senator Bernie Sanders and congressional candidate Nina Turner—are now among his most vocal critics.
Woodfin’s upset victory over the incumbent made national headlines in 2017 as a win for the progressive movement. But this year the local chapter of the organization Our Revolution publicly rescinded its endorsement.
“We championed for him,” said Eric Hall, co-founder of the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter and co-chairperson of Our Revolution – Birmingham. “It was Our Revolution’s push that got him elected as mayor.”
During Woodfin’s first mayoral run, Sanders, founder of Our Revolution, recorded a robo-call for Woodfin. And Turner, then president of Our Revolution, visited Birmingham to campaign for him. The group sent thousands of text messages and made hundreds of calls in support of Woodfin, according to the local chapter.
“Mostly all of the progressive organizations and agencies in Birmingham have rescinded its endorsement or connection to the mayor,” said Hall, who is running for a seat on the Birmingham City Council.
Chief among the groups’ grievances is Woodfin’s inaction on substantive criminal justice reform and, in particular, a lack of openness to non-law enforcement public safety alternatives. The Birmingham mayor, a former prosecutor, has doubled down on defending and increasing law enforcement resources, according to local activists.
The mayor declined The Appeal’s request for an interview and his office did not respond to a list of nearly a dozen questions provided by The Appeal.
Last year, after demonstrations erupted to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the mayor issued a 7 p.m. curfew. He also banned demonstrations, marches, and vigils, aside from those in one designated park, where organizers were allowed to hold daytime protests that required permits. “This is our creative solution to ensure freedom of speech while reducing public safety risks,” Woodfin said in a statement. The state chapter of the ACLU condemned the directive as unconstitutional.
Then Woodfin proposed a multimillion-dollar increase in the police budget. Also as part of his budget, he eliminated 48 vacant police officer positions, according to local news reports. But in 2019, Woodfin called for the expansion of the police force to 1,000 officers.
Woodfin insists he is still committed to criminal justice reform. In December, the mayor’s office released his public safety policy agenda, which includes establishing a civilian complaint review board, increased support for police officers’ mental healthcare, and listening sessions with community members. Residents of Birmingham—which had an estimated population of just over 200,000 in 2019—want more police, he has said.
“There is a conversation nationally about defunding police and yes I’ve heard locally from some people about it, but that is not at the same volume as our citizens saying ‘we want more police presence, we want more police,’’’ Woodfin told AL.com. “As much as there is a national conversation going on about defunding the police, on the ground the majority of voices I hear when I’m in the neighborhoods, when I’m speaking to everyday citizens, is the actual opposite.”
Local activists have pushed back on the mayor’s comments. Residents want to feel safe, they say, but safety is not synonymous with law enforcement. A safe community means divesting from the police force and investing in community-based alternatives to law enforcement, as well as libraries, healthcare, and other community needs, the activists told The Appeal.
Last year, the People’s Budget Birmingham coalition conducted a survey of mostly residents about the city’s investment and divestment priorities for fiscal year 2021. The coalition advocates for greater community input in the city’s budget and comprises eight community groups, including the Birmingham chapter of Black Lives Matter and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center.
Based on responses from more than 800 people, including 690 Birmingham residents, the top priorities for investment were child and youth development (such as youth centers and after-school programs), food security, alternative criminal justice models, and routine mental healthcare and wellness.
When asked what programs should receive less funding in 2021, the top responses were: parking and traffic enforcement; the city attorney’s office; municipal court; the police department and law enforcement; and parks and recreation.
A majority of respondents supported having specialists other than law enforcement respond to a number of issues, including parking enforcement, animal control, domestic violence incidents, mental health crises, and people experiencing homelessness.
These responses reflect findings from a national poll conducted by The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, which found that a majority of likely voters support investment in community-based crisis response programs.
Local activists told The Appeal they want Birmingham’s mayor to invest in a similar model of public safety that prioritizes alternatives to law enforcement—the types of programs that are being piloted around the country, which have received widespread support. Supporters of these programs say they help change the way public safety is carried out in communities.
Several communities are working to limit the role of police in mental health or substance use crises. Nationally, one in four people killed by police have an untreated serious mental health illness, according to a 2015 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center.
In Olympia, Washington, the Crisis Response Unit assists people experiencing substance use or mental health crises, and provides other direct services, like non-emergency medical care. Between October and Dec. 31 of last year, the crisis response unit responded to 915 calls, according to Anne Larsen, the outreach services coordinator for the Olympia Police Department, which oversees the program. Police were not on the scene in about 60 percent of those calls.
When the crisis response unit began in 2019, staff members were contracted employees from a local behavioral health agency, said Larsen. This month, they became civilian police department employees.
“They are not law enforcement officers,” Larsen wrote in an email to The Appeal. “We do not carry any kind of weapon. We do carry a lot of cigarettes and snacks.”
Last year, a pilot program was launched in central Denver to send medical and mental health professionals to people who call 911 for non-criminal emergencies, such as people experiencing suicidal ideation, mental illness, intoxication, or drug overdoses. In the first six months, these teams responded to nearly 750 calls, none of which required police or arrests. The city has calculated that the program could reduce police calls by nearly 3 percent.
A similar pilot program is scheduled to begin in parts of New York City this year, according to the mayor’s office.
“For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in November, when the program was announced.
Denver’s and New York City’s initiatives are modeled on Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS), according to the groups’ press releases. The CAHOOTS program, which began in 1989, dispatches a medic and crisis worker to help people who are experiencing a mental health emergency in the Eugene-Springfield area of Oregon. In 2017, the program answered 17 percent of the city’s police calls and each year saved the city about $8.5 million in public safety spending.
In San Francisco, a program began last fall to dispatch members of the health department and fire department to respond to those experiencing mental health or substance use crises.
If these programs were rolled out in Birmingham, said Celida Soto, a community organizer with the coalition Alabama Arise, they “would actually address the core issues that we’re experiencing in this city, especially during a pandemic.”
After his victory, Soto worked on his transition team. “Our mayor speaks like a true progressive, says all the right words,” she told The Appeal. “None of this comes to fruition on the ground.”
Woodfin has proposed a much more narrow program, which is still anchored in the police department. In December, he announced that the city would begin a pilot program in which social workers and police respond together to misdemeanor domestic violence calls.
The so-called co-responder model, in which a civilian is paired with a police officer, reinforces a flawed system, according to Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network, an anti police-violence advocacy group in California.
“A social worker is not going to be able to intervene if a law enforcement officer decides he wants to escalate things,” Brooks, who is also a co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, told The Appeal. “There are large swaths of Black and brown people who do not want the police involved ever.”
Last year, the Anti Police-Terror Project launched Mental Health First programs in Oakland and Sacramento, in which medical and mental health professionals respond to mental health crises. The program is not affiliated with any city government or police department.
Brooks is a survivor of domestic violence, she told The Appeal. After one incident where she was attacked by her then-husband, who is white, two white officers showed up and Brooks, who is Black, was arrested and taken to jail before a judge dismissed the case.
“Sadly, he was not my last nor was he my first abusive relationship, but I never called the police,” she said. “Because what I was really clear about was that ‘you’re not my ally.’”
When Our Revolution – Birmingham rescinded its endorsement of the mayor, it condemned his latest budget. “Woodfin turned his back on the priorities of the residents of Birmingham as his 2021 budget prioritized corporations and policing, while decreasing funding to libraries, park and recreation centers, education, and social services,” reads the group’s resolution.
Woodfin’s budget for fiscal year 2021 increased the police budget by more than $11 million, while other departments’ funding was cut.
“At a time when most of the nation was crying out to defund the police, our mayor was actually increasing the policing budget,” said Hall.
In September, approximately 400 city employees were furloughed, among them more than 150 librarians, according to local news reports. That month, librarians held a demonstration outside city hall to protest the mayor’s budget. At least one library was permanently closed. Two months later, the City Council passed a measure to bring back up to 132 full-time furloughed employees.
“We have defunded social services,” said community organizer Jamie Foster, who added that he knocked on doors for Woodfin’s first mayoral bid. “Libraries don’t just provide books, they’re a safe haven.”
The mayor has continued to support funding for a real-time crime center for the police department, which the City Council has allocated millions of dollars for since Woodfin announced it in 2019. Such centers have been set up in several cities, including New York, New Orleans, and Detroit. Critics say they’re used to expand the surveillance and over-policing of majority-Black neighborhoods.
Birmingham’s center will integrate existing surveillance and predictive policing technologies, such as PredPol, which the police department began using in 2019 with the mayor’s support. PredPol is supposed to identify times and locations where crimes are more likely to occur, but many police departments have abandoned the technology, saying it didn’t help reduce crime rates, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But there’s been no such rollback under Woodfin, who has supported increased investments in policing technology. In October, in the midst of budget cuts and furloughs, the City Council approved a more than $1.3 million contract, paid out over five years, for the crime center. In January, the council approved about $940,000 for the center’s construction, which is scheduled to begin in May, according to local NPR affiliate WBHM.
Woodfin’s continued push for PredPol, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, shows the mayor’s misplaced priorities, said Marian Mwenja, an organizer who works with the People’s Budget coalition. In Birmingham, a majority-Black city in one of the country’s poorest states, residents often struggle to afford their most basic needs, said Mwenja.
“You just have to get thrown to the wolves about paying your water bill,” they said, “[but] we’re going to have this new fancy software to lock you up better.”
Contrary to what the mayor says, the People’s Budget survey shows strong support for shrinking law enforcement’s role, according to Mwenja.
“People don’t want police responding to really much of anything,” they said. “People don’t really want police, they just want safety.”