Birmingham's Mayor Randall Woodfin makes criminal justice a priority in his campaign promise. Attempting to strike a balance between community and law enforcement, the young mayor has much to do. Photo credit: Randall Woodfin for Mayor Facebook page.

Mayor Randall Woodfin’s community inclusive efforts change Birmingham’s search warrant policy

Woodfin teams up with church and state in police reform.

Birmingham’s Mayor Randall L. Woodfin, a self-described progressive Democrat, has partnered with the police department to revise how local law enforcement serves search warrants. The move falls in line with the federal government’s recent decision to limit “no-knock” warrants and certain choke holds. 

In its changes, Birmingham “does not authorize ‘No-Knock’ search warrants,” a procedure that has led to the unjust murders of many Black Americans, including that of Breonna Taylor in 2020.

A first responder from Kentucky, Taylor was fatally shot and killed in her sleep by officers serving a “no-knock” warrant. To this end, Woodfin aims to make certain an event like this does not take place in his city.

“This new process protects citizens and it protects police,” Woodfin said. Also, the change no longer allows police to use devices such as flash bangs, “unless the risk assessment specifies their use or extreme circumstances call for their use.” 

The City’s police chief Patrick Smith seemed to agree with the mayor. “We are going to work to reevaluate all of our policies to make sure we are implementing [the] best practices in law enforcement while keeping the community safe and our officers safe.”

Knock, knock?

According to Cornell Law, “A no-knock warrant is a search warrant authorizing police officers to enter certain premises without first knocking and announcing their presence or purpose prior to entering the premises.” 

The definition also states that such warrants are to be used in cases where danger to property and or officers is more likely. 

With the exception of an absolute emergency where law enforcement deems a situation dangerous, the procedure is forbidden in Alabama. However, most no-knocks occurred in drug related instances, which disproportionately impact Blacks. 

Currently, Alabama is named as one of four states along the Gulf Coast experiencing some of the highest distribution rates in the drug trade. Birmingham, located in northern Alabama, has been identified as a high trafficking area for heroin.

A report by the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) claims that one of the main avenues for drug shipment into the state are the 300 airports. Also, it comes through traffickers via the massive miles off the coast. In other instances, authorities cite illegal buying collectives called smurfing groups that purchase prescription drugs at pharmacies in a concentrated area. 

Yet and still, most arrests that take place are drug peddlers selling methamphetamines and fentanyl—most of whom are African American.

Birmingham police officer. Photo courtesy: Birmingham PD Facebook page

Sweet Home Alabama 

While there is a petition to implement Woodfin’s no-knock ordinance throughout Alabama, the measures in Birmingham might alleviate the historical strain between the Black community and law enforcement. Thomas Beavers, senior pastor of The Star Church, knows that protecting the community is equally as important stating, “We understand the power and historical capital we have in Birmingham in order to bring change especially in police reform.” 

Having church leaders step up for the community in times of tension is nothing new in Birmingham. The city has long been one of the Civil Rights Movement’s national headquarters during the 1960’s

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) 1963 Birmingham Campaign sought to desegregate public facilities in the city by bringing national attention to Black plight there. The campaign was led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in the same year also came to aid with the Labor Movement.  

At the time, Jim Crow advocate and ardent segregationist, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, served as commissioner of public safety in  the Alabama city for 22 years. He used his administrative authority over the police and fire departments to keep Birmingham “the most segregated city in America,” as King called it.  

Conner, who refused to leave his position after a defeat by Albert Boutwell in a 1962 run-off election, was known for his violent use of fire hoses and police dogs on mostly underage or young, unarmed Black demonstrators who rallied for fair and consistent laws. 

Hence, a culture of distrust in law enforcement resulted for many Black residents. Eventually, Conner was forcibly removed by the state Supreme Court and later died of a stroke in 1973. However, Alabama’s racist history did not give up its breath. 

Today, Alabama’s population is 25 percent Black. However, that same population represents over 50 percent of those currently incarcerated. At this time, the Black incarceration rate is 1,417 (per 100,000), while the white rate is 425 (per 100,000).

Allies in the struggle 

Seemingly, law enforcement adjustments are trending in many other cities. Especially as Black people become more aware and outraged at what they see as archaic, systemically violent policing standards with historically brutal results. 

For example, Woodfin’s focus mirrors that of Mayor Ras Baraka’s in Newark, New Jersey. In order to maintain a system of checks and balances, Baraka has been attempting to grant subpoena power to his Civilian Complaint Review Board. He hopes this measure will hold Newark police more accountable. Like Woodfin, he is not letting up until change is visible. To power forward, he took the case before the U.S. Supreme Court after the N.J. State supreme court overturned a decision granting subpoena power to the board.

Added, the mayors share similar views on other progressive policies, including marijuana reform. Baraka said in a 2019 New Jersey Assembly hearing, “Non-violent convictions for any amount of cannabis should be automatically expunged, and those with convictions should not be barred from owning a cannabis related business.” 

In his efforts, he also insisted that the state of New Jersey expunge all marijuana convictions. Likewise Woodfin has pardoned some 15,000 misdemeanor marijuana convictions going back as far as 1990. 

Critical Reception

Even with his accomplishments and proponents, Woodfin has critics. One of those voices being Black Lives Matter Birmingham (BLMB). 

The organization has pressured Woodfin to resign amid tension surrounding the deaths of Desmon Montez Ray Jr. and Eusi Malik Kater Jr. on Jan. 21 and April 4, 2021, respectively. They claim the two lives were lost at the hands of law enforcement officials under Woodfin’s watch. In addition, BLMB has called for the defunding of police.  

Despite this, Woodfin is determined to “build immediate trust [for law enforcement] with the citizens we serve.” 

. . . .

Since Woodfin’s reform in Birmingham, the federal government has announced an official memorandum “to limit the circumstances in which agents may seek to enter a dwelling pursuant to a warrant without complying with the “knock and announce” rule.”

Indeed, Alabama residents hope to see some limitations on discernment and the amount of violence previously permissible to the police. Only time will tell if the implementation of the new policies are what is really needed for Birmingham law enforcement to objectively both “protect and serve.”

Sekhu Atum Rayay and Kaia Niambi Shivers contributed to this article.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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