by John H. Glenn
Photo: Livestream of Public Safety Task Force forum
In a specially-called Public Safety Task Force forum Thursday evening, the Birmingham Public Safety Task Force heard public proposals and testimonies on potential improvements for community safety, including a permanent police advisory or review board.
The task force was created by Mayor Woodfin this July in response to the George Floyd protests nation and statewide. Its goal being to evaluate and recommend potential changes in public safety in the fashion of #8CantWait.
“Visually, [the Task Force is] all different, but collectively coming together around this whole notion of peel back each layer of what exists currently in the Birmingham Police Department,” Mayor Woodfin said in his opening. “We’re now at a position where we want to hear [the public’s] thoughts. We want to hear your opinions. We want to hear your solutions. We want to hear your frustrations.”
One of the first proposals discussed is a permanent police advisory or review board. Theses types of police independent assessment committees already adopted and considered in other Alabama cities like Hunstville, Mobile, and Montgomery.
Community member Jermaine Stanton proposed an independent police review board, composed of five individuals —three from the public, two police supervisors—, with the authority to reprimand and terminate police officers for misconduct.
“This board will not be concerned with guilt or innocence regarding an officers conduct,” Stanton said. “This board would only be used when it’s an immutable fact that a citizen has been seriously injured as a result of conduct by a police officer.”
The review board would meet and decide whether or not to take action on an offending officer, submitting its final decision to the Birmingham Police Chief for a final consideration and leaving the chief and mayor the authority to veto any decision in the event of “egregious error” on the part of the review board.
“The effects of this review board would be to harbor a sense of trust between the community and the police department by partnering with the community in those rare instances of extreme police misconduct,” Stanton said. “The fact that the board is composed of a majority of citizens from the community with true authority to reprimand, suspend or terminate and not merely placate, gives the community a sense of ownership and control that will go a long way to mend the relationship between the police department and the community.”
Former Birmingham police detective and task force member Ed Watkins voiced concerns over the proposed jury style selection process of the three community board members in this proposal. Watkins pressed the issue of qualifications in the members of the public to be able to make decisions on whether a police officer acted in a necessary and legal manner.
“I like language like the advisory board,” Watkins said. “I can see an advisory board reviewing a particular incident, and a group of qualified individuals sitting down with the chief of police and having some dialogue”
“I will remind everyone that we ask citizens to be jurors every day,” Stanton said “And to navigate, very complex legal issues, and the ramifications of those jury trials is someone’s freedom—is someone’s life can be taken away. Worst case scenario on this review board, is that someone would lose their job.”
Community member Jeff Jackson produced a somewhat similar review board proposal, differentiating from the previous proposal in how many members would sit on the board, and how the selection process of the citizens on the board.
In discussion, task force members suggested changing the makeup to nine members from the city council, allowing each district a spot on the board and suggesting a direct employee of the city of Birmingham as chairmen.
Task force member Watkins again voiced concerns over the title of the board. “In my opinion, review kind of allude to some type of overreaching authority,” Watkins said. “[The police department] have an internal mechanism. They have the AG’s office with the state of Alabama—We don’t want to create a sense of redundancy.”
Near the end of discussion, Jackson proposed an application process for community members wishing to become a part of the board. A candidate would apply and be reviewed for potential inclusion. He also suggested that board members would also rotate half at a time, allowing for newcomers to learn from longer serving members on the board.
“Diversity is important.” Jackson said. “I think if we just as a whole, get seven community members. I’m assuming they will be diverse and some of them may fall in that in that category anyway. But diversity is important.”
Other proposals and testimony included:
- Educational programs for police officers and citizens to address prejudice.
- More focus and attention towards femicide and domestic abuse in Birmingham.
- Funding for mental health assistance for substance abuse victims
- Attention to how police handle and charge at-risk juveniles, removal of resource officers in schools, and programs for at-risk juveniles
- Attracting more grocery stores to Birmingham’s neighborhoods and creating more co-ops and neighborhood farms.
- Creating programs to educate and bring awareness to the dangers of human trafficking
- Mentorship programs with professional athletes for at-risk juveniles