Since the drafting of this article the Pratt City community has been subjected to an incident of police terrorism that involved swat, police officers in riot gear, the removal of the elderly from their home, and an arrest. All of this was done under the banner of the Violence Reduction Initiative (V.R.I.) and this has drastically impacted our current stance.

Present: Jarralynne Agee, Jilisa Milton- BLM, Eric Hall -BLM, Martez Files -BLM, Chief Roper, Danny Carr- Interim DA, Foster Cook – UAB TASC, Kelli Solomon- Executive Assistant to Mayor Bell, US Attorney Joyce Vance, FBI representatives,Community Foundation members, William Barnes- President of Urban League, Amber Haywood- ASSATA, and others.

On Monday, August 22, shortly after a community meeting with Chief Roper and the National Network for Safe Communities, a member of our policy team spoke with David Kennedy, one of the creators of GVI, the original crime reduction model that VRI is modeled from. We asked detailed questions about the model, and how it is often implemented. We were told that the model will vary depending on community efforts, and customization. For more information on the Birmingham Violence Reduction Initiative as described by the city please visit this page.

Our chapter reached out to Jarralynne Agee, who is designated to oversee the program’s implementation in Birmingham. On November 29, 2016, we sat down with officials involved with the V.R.I.’s implementation including legal professionals, prosecutors, law enforcement, social service providers, community members, etc. to determine the philosophy, goals and methods. We asked questions about the practical application and data collection process of the initiative.

After the meeting, we determined the following:

  • There had been approximately 5 call ins
  • Approximately 70 people had been chosen to participate by the initiative
  • There had been no arrests associated with violations of the initiative
  • There had been no attempts by the police to arrest or target group members if they aren’t expected to be suspects in a crime.
  • Police and other law enforcement individuals are knowledgeable about or briefed on the constitutional rights of individuals in the initiative
  • The Birmingham Police Department rejects zero tolerance policies and stop and frisk approaches because of known negative implications
  • VRI has been implemented for approximately 1.5 years by that date, and is in a demonstrative stage. Data was being compiled.

After the meeting our concerns are:

  • Certain language used in the media surrounding the initiative is not consistent with social justice and criminal justice reform principles. Most of the information about VRI in the media is not straightforward and representative. Allegedly, this is due to protecting the identities of the participants. However, this calls into question the issue of transparency when law enforcement behavior is already shielded.
  • The possibility of exacerbating issues of recidivism. Even if the current VRI team is dedicated to a restorative justice model, there is no accountability in place. For example, the threat of being listed as a target for future surveillance actually reads like a zero tolerance policy on its face. We fear that it may be implemented as this type policy in the future as other leadership takes over.
  • The need for a cultural competency component, especially when deciding ways of interacting, in particularly, with vulnerable communities. Especially, when it involves increasing the presence of law enforcement. The need for criminologists, sociologists, etc. of color with an understanding of African American history and gender/race theory to be at the table when determining strategy. We believe the current V.R.I. team would benefit from this perspective.
  • Determining data about crime reduction through quantitative analysis may be detrimental to the community. For example, the amount of criminal activity may be reduced both by oppressive means (over-policing) and helpful means (reducing recidivism/allowing reconciliation and positive rehabilitation). If the city government cares about community empowerment and improvement as opposed to simply surveillance and arrests, we suggest using qualitative analysis (stories, life experiences) to evaluate the program as well.
  • The need to provide an honest evaluation of the goals and scope of the V.R.I.. This includes whether it is meant to reduce crime in Birmingham by a specific percentage. This is especially important because the city government has created an illusion that the VRI is supposed to “eliminate crime” (despite a need for economic empowerment strategies to do so as well). It should also be noted that the current response to any present crime is that the V.R.I. is not working.
  • No current analysis as to whether there was some cause for the most recent decreases in violent crime.
  • A seemingly limited and/or obvious legal channel of support for VRI groups despite the initiative’s increased law enforcement presence. Most prosecutorial bodies are a part of the implementation of the program, and community trust should not be assumed to be given without some explanation that these governmental agencies will also prosecute police officers who engage in misconduct or abuse.

Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter has not taken a stance on the Violence Reduction Initiative, as we believe in criminal justice reform, as opposed to the use of current systemic approaches to reducing criminality. We do not promote the use of “harsh on crime” philosophies, as they have led to issues of over-policing and mass incarceration. However, we seek to continue our message of reform by communicating our concerns openly with the community and with officials who implement programs and initiatives such as the VRI.

We are aware of community concerns regarding gentrification (the process of renovating and developing communities so that it conforms to middle-class interests that ultimately pushes poor people out). It is clear that the community is weary of the existence of unknown donors with an “interest” in  areas of Birmingham investing in V.R.I., but not clearly versed in meaningful criminal justice reform. We believe that if those with “interest” in development also have investment in programs such as the V.R.I. that it is, at very least, disheartening and careless. We do not believe that an “interest” to reduce crime is enough to be deliberate and intentional about ensuring the safety and peace within our communities in such a way that is free from further marginalization.

Gentrification, criminal justice reform, and asset based approaches to crime reduction (that account for structural and institutional racism) are important issues on our agenda, as we have been working with other groups on strategies to make information about these issues accessible to the community. We believe that even with rapid large business development of the city, the effects of gentrification can be harmful to our community by displacing those who live and own small businesses here. With this, we reject the idea of private people with business “interests” paying for programs that provide policing components in black communities. We recognize that, historically, business interests have taken priority over black lives. This has led to neglecting the needs of black communities. Thus, we are committed to driving critical dialogue and challenging those in power to consider the interests of vulnerable communities over that of land developers and other outside entities.

Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter is dedicated to transformative and restorative justice practices. It is clear that the community is concerned about the VRI and its implications. We believe that it is critical for the community to be educated about any initiatives or policies that will ultimately impact their lives and livelihood. We will continue to advocate and stand in solidarity with community members doing this critical work.

Yours in Truth and Justice,

Black Lives Matter Birmingham Chapter

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