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Birmingham police ax nearly 300 officers as violent crime rises: what is being done?

Amid increasing reports of deadly violence, the Birmingham Police Department is operating with nearly 300 fewer officers than the city has allocated money to pay.

There are 296 vacant positions, Birmingham City Council President Darrell O’Quinn said, citing a city department staff report the council received in April.

“This is factual information and we hear it anecdotally from people on the street in terms of response time,” O’Quinn told AL.com.

The council has budgeted funding for 720 officers this year, but employment has fallen by almost 300 posts.

At the same time, the city is dealing with weeks of deadly violence as a stretched police force faces spikes in emergency calls and lagging response times, O’Quinn said. The City Council this week approved a plan for a Citizen Watch Patrol, with volunteers — as many as 200 of them — who aren’t police officers helping to patrol neighborhoods.

Officer Deangelo Hall, president of the Birmingham Fraternal Order of Police, said the officer shortage is a troubling problem that has multiple causes, including low employee morale due to longer shifts and high stress.

“We have three-, five-, nine- and 13-year vets packing up and leaving,” Hall told AL.com. “So obviously there are some issues that we need to address. We’re trying to sort out a few things and present a plan to the mayor’s office.”

It’s not the money that’s the problem, O’Quinn said.

In fact, the police department at the end of fiscal year 2023 left $12 million of its budget unspent, he said.

“That’s what’s happened for several years in a row – that the police department has had a large number of vacancies for many years in a row,” the board president said.

Rick Journey, the mayor’s communications director, declined to elaborate on police numbers, saying the city does not discuss internal law enforcement operations.

Mayor Randall Woodfin has publicly mentioned the challenge of recruiting and retaining officers. He and other officials are pleading for peace in the city.

The mayor went to council this week to approve citizen-led alternative policing and public safety initiatives like the Citizens Observer Patrol.

Hall, the FOP president, balked at the timing and tone of this proposal.

“You present a plan to bring in civilians to help report crimes, but you haven’t presented anything to help bring in officers,” he said. “This is a big problem. Don’t you care about our feelings and how short you are?”

Hall described it as short-sighted to present a plan without also addressing the causes of police force cuts. He said because of low morale in the department, some officers are leaving for lower paying jobs to work in a better environment.

O’Quinn acknowledged a wide range of factors contributing to the difficulty of improving officer numbers, including low morale and the city’s 20-year early retirement, which takes officers relatively young.

“We need to think about public safety differently, beyond traditional policing,” O’Quinn said. “And part of that is what we did on Tuesday by authorizing his police auxiliary program and the citizen watcher patrol program. But there is much more, especially on the technological side, that could be implemented.

“There’s more that could be done that doesn’t look like a guy with a badge and a gun that can be effective in creating a safer environment,” O’Quinn added.

But he also said there is still work to be done within the police department.

“When morale is low among existing employees, it’s hard to recruit new employees, and it’s certainly hard to keep people who have experience that you want to keep,” O’Quinn said.

Hall said he remains optimistic despite the ongoing challenges.

“We will do our part. We will help recruit officers Birmingham is still a great city and Birmingham still has a lot to offer,” he said.

“It’s not all doom and gloom, but we certainly need to make this recruiting effort to bring in law enforcement officers and also make the profession more palatable to the communities.”

O’Quinn said the city needs to consider a multitude of solutions.

“In one sense, it’s not unfair to say that there needs to be a little bit of an overhaul of how we approach public safety,” he said.

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