(This is another installment in Birmingham Times/AL.com joint series on Gun Violence in the city)
Birmingham Police Chief Scott Thurmond took the helm of Alabama’s largest police force at an unenviable time.
The city’s homicide tally is on pace to break records and staffing and morale have been critically low.
Those who know or have worked with the 48-year-old Thurmond say he is up to the challenge.
“I’ve never known Scott to give up on anything,’’ said Jason Epstein, Thurmond’s college roommate and longtime friend. “He’s stronger than the problem. If there’s a challenge, he’s going to outlast it.”
Thurmond, a husband, father of two teen sons and 23-year veteran of the department, was named as the acting chief in January, a position that was made permanent in June by Mayor Randall Woodfin.
“I have every confidence in the leadership of Acting Chief Thurmond,” said Woodfin said at the time.
“He has a history of innovation, strength, and humility. Acting Chief Thurmond will be a bridge builder for our residents and police force. He is the right man to help keep our community safe.”
“Since day one, Chief Thurmond has demonstrated that he is a compassionate leader and an advocate for our officers and residents,” Woodfin said in June. “There is no need to look any further. He is the right man for the job. He will serve our city well.”
Efforts to reach Woodfin for additional comment were unsuccessful.
Thurmond is four months into the permanent position, and some say it’s too soon to evaluate or predict what his tenure will look like. Some say they believe he is the right person for the times.
“He has the experience, he has the temperament, he certainly has the leadership skills,’’ said Allen Treadaway, a state representative and former assistant chief. “I think he comes in at a time where that is needed.”
“He communicates well with the faith-based community, and he has the experience working in Birmingham where he knows the layout of the city, its history and he has a great appreciation for that.”
“Throughout all of the other chiefs, my office did get calls and complaints about police related matters that were under the chiefs’ purview and since Chief Thurmond taking over, I have not gotten any calls,’’ Birmingham City Council Member Hunter Williams said. “That’s not to say I won’t.”
“But when the phone doesn’t ring and it’s quiet, it’s a good thing and that means he has his head down, he’s doing his job, he’s doing what needs to be done for the department,’’ Williams said. “And when the department has leadership that is respected and effective, then the citizens get the best outcome.”
‘There is nothing else he wanted’
Thurmond, a Hoover native, graduated from the University of Montevallo in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in sociology and a minor in political science. He joined the Birmingham Police Department in 1998.
“That was his dream job,’’ Epstein said. “If somebody were to ever be destined for something, that was it. There is nothing else he wanted other than to be in law enforcement.”
While at Montevallo, Thurmond held several leadership positions. He was a prosecutor for the Student Justice Council, and he also served on the Traffic Court.
Epstein recalled the day Thurmond learned he had been accepted into the Birmingham Police Academy.
“He was so excited he was going to work for the largest police force in the area,’’ he said.
Thurmond started at the North Precinct, in the Titusville and Smithfield communities, as patrolman and Field Training Officer.
In 2007, he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the West Precinct.
A year later, Thurmond was transferred to the Homicide Unit and in 2013 he was promoted to lieutenant.
In 2015, Thurmond was appointed commander of the Homicide Unit and in 2018, he became the Interim Commander of the newly formed Robbery/Homicide Division which consisted of seven individual units: Homicide Unit, Felony Assault Unit, Robbery Unit, Crime Reduction Team (CRT), Project ICE, Intelligence Unit, and the Sex Offender Unit.
Thurmond was made captain of the West Precinct in 2019, launching a special task force focused on taking guns off the streets and. During his time there, the West Precinct saw a 25 percent reduction in crime.
Most recently, he served as the Executive Assistant to the Deputy Chief of the Investigative Bureau.
After Thurmond was appointed chief, Epstein said he was humbled by his selection.
“He was just focused on doing his job and being a principled leader. The universe worked it out where he ended up as chief.”
“He’s not somebody that wants to be in the spotlight but he’s accepting of the spotlight because he knows he’s serving his colleagues,’’ Epstein said. “He’s very steady and he’s going to outlast whatever problems are in front of him.”
Thurmond said the four key priorities of his administration are fighting gun violence, improving community engagement, employee wellness and recruitment and retention of officers.
“We have to develop trust,’’ he said. “If the community doesn’t trust us, we’re not going to be very effective.”
Since becoming chief, he has been visible in the community, attending events both large and small to interact with the public. The rank-and-file are doing the same, Thurmond said.
Thurmond just wrapped up the Faith & Blue weekend with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s office that included a prayer walk. The department last week restarted the Citizens Police Academy, at which the chief gave the opening remarks.
Many weekends he attends community events, such as initiatives with area pastors.
“I think law enforcement has the larger burden to prove their trust to the community,’’ he said. “Are we going to treat people right, treat them with respect? I think we have to go above and beyond.”
It remains to be seen if that approach will solve what was perhaps the biggest problem Thurmond inherited — a rising homicide rate that is likely to reach a 31-year record high.
‘We’re destroying ourselves from within’
As of Oct. 16, there had been 120 homicides in the city. Of those, seven have been ruled justifiable and therefore aren’t deemed criminal.
Birmingham police officials do not include justifiable homicides in their official tally because the FBI doesn’t require they do so for statistical reviews.
As of Oct. 16, 2021, there had been 93 homicides. Killings are up nearly 30 percent in the city.
In all of Jefferson County, there have been 161 homicides including the 120 in Birmingham.
Countywide at this point last year, there had been 151 homicides.
If the trend continues, Birmingham is on pace to break the highest number in recent memory which was 141 in 1991. The city’s lowest homicide tally over the past several decades was 57 in 2011.
“What we see in major cities usually comes to Birmingham about a year later and I think that’s what we’re seeing now with the homicides,’’ Thurmond said in an interview with AL.com. “Chicago and some other major cities have been dealing with this the past couple of years. It’s hitting us hard this year.”
“It’s the culture of America unfortunately. I don’t think people are raised to the same standards that they were in years past,’’ he said. “As a society, we’re destroying ourselves from within.”
“Is it just a City of Birmingham issue? No, it’s a nationwide problem,’’ he said. “This is the culture.”
“Look at the music kids listen to today. Think about the music of the 70s and 80s and maybe even the early 90s,’’ he said. “They talked about girlfriends and love. It wasn’t beating and shooting and (expletive) the police.”
“You listen to that all day, and it becomes a part of your environment,’’ Thurmond said. “Look at Grand Theft Auto IV – it’s one of the most violent games there is about killing police. It just becomes OK, normal, acceptable.”
As of Oct. 10, overall violent crime was down 18 percent, according to BPD statistic. The category of aggravated assaults was down 23 percent, and the rape and robbery categories also saw a decline.
Property crimes were up by 3.2 percent, including burglary, theft, auto theft, and unlawful breaking and entering a vehicle. Violent and property crimes overall were down 2.4 percent.
Thurmond said the reality of crime in the city is better than the perception. While there have been multiple “innocent” victims killed in the city this year – including some teens who were caught in crossfire – the chief said that’s the exception, not the norm.
“You don’t have a parent going to get gallon of milk or a pack of diapers at 9 p.m. getting murdered,’’ he said. “You do have people, places and behaviors.”
“If you engage with people doing illegal things in places where you shouldn’t be with people who are known for violence or other issues, the likelihood of something happening to you is very high,’’ he said.
Asked if he had inherited a problem that can’t be fixed, Thurmond said, “I think it’s going to be challenging. If it was easy, everybody would do it.”
Treadaway said how Thurmond’s job performance is judged should be based on the resources he is given.
“If you’re 200 officers down and you don’t have the tools to do the job and you haven’t been given the tools to do the job, it’s disingenuous to hold any chief responsible for the numbers,” Treadaway said.
“On the other hand, if you’ve given the chief what he’s asked for and you’ve given him the tools to do the job and you don’t have any positive results, then I think it is fair to take a closer look,’’ he said.
‘We haven’t been able to hire and train officers’
Jefferson County Commissioner Lashunda Scales, who recently hosted a town hall on public safety, said addressing gun violence needs to include all levels of government including lawmakers and the criminal court system.
“To address violent crime, you have to get to the root cause of the problem which would include the faith-based community, social services, mental health, economics and the underserved communities, along with making violent offensives a punishable crime that slows down repeat offenses,’’ she said.
“So basically, in order for Chief Thurmond to be effective, he must be empowered to effectively fight crime and not the public relations of crime,’’ she said.
“Any police department that desires to function at a high level must first make law enforcement and protecting its citizenry, along with stakeholders, a top priority,’’ she said. “Anything else only causes a detriment to the department.”
Birmingham’s Fraternal Order of Police Board of Trustees was outspoken about the previous administration, even issuing a historic vote of no-confidence.
In March, just months after Thurmond was named acting chief, a “disproportionate number” of Birmingham police officers called in sick one day with concerns about pay and pension, as well as staffing shortages.
Mayor Woodfin responded with a 5 percent pay raise to all city employees, not just police officers.
Other area departments have given pay raises for first responders and one – Tarrant – recently gave its public safety employees a 20 percent cost of living raise, and a 5 percent raise to the rest of the city employees.
Officer Lawrence Billups, Chairman of the FOP Board of Trustees, said the department is woefully understaffed and still losing officers. He said he hopes the department is coming up with a plan to recruit more officers.
“We’re in a wait and see mode,’’ he said.
Treadaway said officer morale was low when Thurmond took over, but he looks for that to improve under Thurmond.
“His style is very different than the previous police chief and he inherited a situation that is very difficult. The staffing levels are very low and when your officers are working a lot of overtime, that in itself creates some morale issues,’’ Treadaway said.
“As far as the morale that previously existed when folks didn’t feel like they were being treated fairly or listened to, that’s another issue that I know has been removed with this chief,’’ Treadaway said. “They know he’s a fair man and that he’s going to work hard for them.”
Treadaway said staffing levels at the Birmingham Police Department are probably the lowest they’ve been in decades.
“They’re in the range of 200 officers down than they had just a few years ago. The problem with that is every month, or every quarter, there’s more officers lost than they’re able to recruit and train and put on the street,’’ he said.
“They’re going to have to go out and recruit police officers who are already certified and use pay incentives to bring them in because if you just look at the last five years, we haven’t been able to hire and train officers to just replace the ones who are walking out the door or retiring through normal attrition,’’ Treadaway said.
“If we don’t address why officers are leaving, and why we’re so short and why we don’t have the ability to recruit and retain folks and the numbers are the lowest they’ve ever been, I don’t know how you can blame that on him,’’ Treadaway said.
“You need to then start looking at elected officials who have the responsibility of giving the police department the adequate tools to do the job.”
“When your calls for service are 45,000 to 50,000 a month and your staffing levels have dropped dramatically but your calls for service and coverage area haven’t dropped,’’ he said, “you just can’t respond in the time you need to respond in order to address the concerns of the citizens.”
Thurmond when he took office said recruiting and retention were among his priorities. The department has worked hard to revamp recruiting and retention and are coming with incentives that other agencies can’t offer.
The department is working on a pilot program of putting officers on 12-hour shifts which he said will put more officers on the streets.
“They’ll never work more than three days straight. Their off days will be set instead of rotating,’’ he said.
“They only work 14 days a month, but it puts more officers on the streets, so it helps with officer safety, and it gives us a better response to the community.”
The department has implemented a new Employee Wellness program that the chief says will give employees the tools they need to be successful, not only at work but at home. Financial wellness, nutrition, and dealing with stress are all part of the new program.
“We have one of the more robust peer support programs in the state,’’ he said. “That helps and gives officers the opportunity to decompress.”
‘He has earned this job’
Treadaway said Thurmond needs the time and resources to get the job done.
“I think it’s extremely important that we have some consistency and somebody who understands the terrain and the culture of the city of Birmingham. He understands and appreciates it,’’ he said. “He came up through a system that has taught those important issues to all BPD officers. We’ve seen the disastrous results when you bring folks in who don’t understand that.”
Treadaway said change doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes takes several years to achieve.
“He’s been a stabilizing force as far as morale is concerned. There were a lot of issues with the previous administration that aren’t there now, but by no means is everything fixed,’’ Treadaway said.
“There will be some ways to measure effectiveness after a year,’’ he said, “but I can’t emphasize enough that we’ve got to get more boots on the ground to handle the normal day to day law enforcement issues.”
Williams said he believes Thurmond is where he is supposed to be.
“He’s been very consistent in the way he has dealt with the community. He has been community- focused and he has been very clear he has a job to do,’’ Williams said.
“He’s not a political person. He’s not from outside the department. But he has risen the ranks through hard work and has served in almost every sector of the police department which I think is very important because he understands the workings of every single section of the department, and he also understands what the shortcomings are.”
“I think it’s important you have someone who is clearly focused on one goal and that is protecting the citizens of Birmingham the best way possibly and having worked in every single unit it gives him a unique perspective rather than hiring somebody from outside of the department, or outside of the state,” he said.
“Right now, we have a violent crime problem in the city of Birmingham – he has served in several units, including being the homicide commander, that specifically focused on violent crime,’’ Williams said.
“When we’re talking about violent crime and what we need in leadership, he has served in a capacity that has allowed him to be hands on in all those different areas.”
Williams said Thurmond has a great relationship with the public, and he said he saw a positive response when Thurmond first named acting chief.
“I heard multiple stories of him being the first person people met after a loved one was killed and the impression he made on those family members, as well as the fairness diplomacy he exhibited while he was the West Precinct commander,’’ Williams said.
“He has proven himself time and time again in all areas of the department,’’ he said. “Because of his hard work and dedication, he has earned this job as chief.”