The Birmingham City Council recently approved an agreement with the Jefferson County Board of Health to fund implementing a hospital-linked violence intervention program to help reduce acts of retaliation from victims of violent crimes and their loved ones.

The ordinance awards up to $2,103,321 to the Jefferson County Board of Health. In turn, the Board is tasked with funding the program in Birmingham hospitals. 

A pilot program was launched in February at the University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital. The Offender Alumni Association (OAA), which consists of former offenders, won the request for proposal to become the service provider. 

Under the program, violence intervention specialists would engage gunshot victims and their loved ones in the hospital. After the patient is discharged, specialists coordinate with the outpatient clinical team. 

Last year was Birmingham's most violent year since the early 1990s, and several sources have ranked the city one of the most unsafe in the country. There were 144 homicides in Birmingham in 2022 alone. 

As of May, the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) said this year's homicides were on par with last year's — 46 homicides to 2022's 48. 

Representatives from the OAA came before the council at the Tuesday morning meeting to answer questions.

Councilman J.T. Moore expressed concern that the program is only designed to address some of the violent crimes in the city. 

"I think recently, obviously, we've had a lot of different shootings that have taken place in our city," Moore explained. "... With this, I know that it will provide some sort of intervention for the retaliation piece, but it's not necessarily intervening in gun violence in general … The eligibility or the requirement to enroll in this program is number one, you have to be shot. That's the challenging part for me."

OAA Program Director Dena Dickerson clarified that the program specifically addresses retaliation. She said the first step for the intervention specialist is to discern whether or not gang affiliation is involved in the shooting at hand. The last is to provide the victim with resources when they leave the hospital.

"We know that one in five will be murdered within five years if intervention doesn't happen," said one of the program supervisors. "We know that one in four will be reinjured if intervention doesn't happen. A great degree of our homicides are retaliation oriented … Prevention and intervention is the answer to the problem. So, when we meet people at the bedside [after they've been shot], that's a great place to start talking about change. And pain is a very good motivator."

The supervisor said the intervention specialists deal with patients who experience a variety of risk factors such as substance abuse, health issues, lack of education and bad lifestyle choices. 

Councilwoman Crystal Smitherman said violence prevention programs could produce a 60% reduction in gun violence and pointed to similar programs in larger cities in the Northeast.

"We can't police our way out of this," Smitherman said. "... We can't take guns out of everybody's hands. Guns have been around for centuries. But what we can do is help these people."

Nevertheless, the lack of resources provided by Birmingham police has been a concern.

Birmingham Police Department (BPD) is stationed in the center of over 30 municipalities in the Birmingham area. It must compete not only with other police departments and sheriff's offices but also with other professions. Law enforcement faces an unprecedented national staffing shortage, with fewer people seeking to become police officers.

Councilman Hunter Williams told 1819 News last month that he was concerned about BPD's ability to compete with other law enforcement agencies for officers. He cited a law protecting mayoral power as a reason for the BPD's neglect and suggested the city should have a take-home car program for police officers like other law enforcement agencies.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson could not attend the meeting. However, he gave a presentation in favor of the program at the council's Budget and Finance Committee meeting on Monday. 

All but one councilor voted in favor of the ordinance. Moore abstained from voting. 

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