Bessemer, Alabama

Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation

Bessemer, Alabama

BCJI Funding Year: FY2019

BCJI Awardee: National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives

Research Partner: University of Alabama at Birmingham

Focus Area: Southside and Braswell Communities - Population 26,538

Challenges: Violent Crime, Felony Theft, Drug-Related Crime

Neighborhood Characteristics

The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) identified Bessemer, Alabama, as an area that would benefit from a Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation (BCJI) grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice. The city hosts a high poverty rate of 29.7 percent, and 29.83 of every 1,000 residents experience violent crime, compared to the state-wide rate of 5.24 per 1,000 residents and the national rate of 4 per 1,000 residents. Since the 1950s, most of the city's population has been African American. Out of the 26,538 residents, 69.9 percent identify as African American, 24.4 percent identify as Caucasian, 4.7 percent identify as Hispanic/Latino, 1.2 percent identify as mixed race, 0.2 identify as Native American, and 0.1 percent identify as Asian.

From 1890 through the 20th century, the city was a center for steelmaking, attracting rural migrants from the South, as well as European immigrants. Ore mining has since ended as an industry, but manufacturing remains, with the U.S. Pipe and Foundry ductile pipe plant on the city's north side. The decline of mining and the exodus of the steelmaking and railcar manufacturing industries resulted in an extensive loss of jobs. By the mid-1980s, one-third of the workforce was unemployed. Recently, the city has been successful in diversifying its economy. In June 2018, Amazon announced that it would build a new 800,000 square-foot, $325 million fulfillment center in Bessemer, which will initially create 1,500 new jobs. Although there are significant signs of progress in Bessemer, the reputation for and reality of crime hampers the ability of the community to thrive.

Downtown Bessemer is a designated Opportunity Zone. While certain hot spots of crime exist within Bessmer, the Bessemer Police Department (BPD) identified two public housing communities, Southside and Braswell, as particular areas of concern for criminal activity. Although the housing communities themselves are not necessarily hot spots for crime, the BPD indicates that the housing communities serve as a "home base" for many of the individuals committing crimes throughout the city. This led the BPD to create a police precinct within the Southside Homes Community to improve their relationship with residents and more effectively prevent and solve crimes.

Planning Phase

The NOBLE Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation - Bessemer (NBCJI-B) project will undertake a 12-month Planning Phase, during which it will collect baseline data, conduct key informant interviews, and convene diverse focus groups consisting of key stakeholders. At the beginning of the Planning Phase, a cross-sector partnership will be formed to advise and sustain the project. This NBCJI-B Partnership Advisory Board will bring key partners into the project to collaborate, provide essential subject matter expertise, and leverage resources. Partners will include the Bessemer Coalition, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Bessemer Police Department, Bessemer Housing Authority, 100 Black Men of America, National Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, and Movement Forward. Other groups will be included when appropriate, as well as private citizens and community leaders.

This proposal uses community-based participatory research (CBPR) as the methodological framework to determine the community's needs and effective interventions to reduce overall violence, with a focus on deadly encounters. The data collection, analysis, and research required to engage the community to develop multi-level interventions will be accomplished during a 12-month data gathering phase through a scientifically sound, mixed-methods approach.

The objective of the Planning Phase will be to determine how to advance the following overarching project goals:

  • Increase collective efficacy.
  • Strengthen collaboration between the police and community members.
  • Reduce violent crime.
  • Increase the overall quality of life for all citizens in the affected community.

Implementation Strategies

The BCJI project’s conceptual framework is based on a socio-ecological model, which examines violence prevention strategies at four interrelated levels of influence (i.e., individual, relationship, community, and societal) for a person becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of violence. During the Planning Phase, the grantee site collected and analyzed data from interviews with individual stakeholders, GIS mapping, focus groups, and community surveys, to develop an intervention plan with strategies associated with each of the levels of influence. These strategies aim to enhance collective efficacy, strengthen police-community collaboration, improve the quality of life for community members, and prevent violent crime and deadly encounters in the long term. 

Individual-Level Interventions 

Summer Camp and Afterschool Programs – The grantee site supports Summer Camp programming, offered during June and July, and After School programming, offered during the school year. These comprehensive programs provide an array of activities, including gardening, art therapy, mentoring, field trips, physical activity and nutrition, financial literacy, and academic tutoring. The centerpiece of these programs is social emotional learning (SEL), a life skills education that focuses on the areas of communication, self-awareness, appropriate decision-making, critical thinking, coping with emotions, and relationship building through social skills development, to reduce problematic behaviors. 

The Law and Your Community® – NOBLE’s The Law and Your Community® nationally recognized hands-on interactive training program is designed for youth to improve their communications with law enforcement officers and understanding of federal, state, and local laws. The program has four objectives: 

  1. Increased awareness of law enforcement and community policing. 

  1. Factual understanding of legal rights. 

  1. Practical strategies and tools to use when interacting with law enforcement officials. 

  1. Opportunity for more desirable outcomes when encountering law enforcement officials. 

The grantee site will offer programming weekly in sessions of the Summer Camp and the After School program. 

Relationship-Level Interventions 

Mentoring for Youth, Teens, and Young Adults – During the Summer Camp, and After School program, Determined to Be and Cupcakes and Convos will provide mentorship opportunities for youth and host workshops for parents. 

Community-Level Interventions 

Police Outreach and Community Engagement – This intervention seeks to increase trust, cohesiveness, and informed policing through NOBLE’s different training methodologies. Service-learning pedagogy will be used in police orientation and professional development programs to empower officers and increase positive community engagement.  

Community Gardening – The grantee site will collaborate with community members to develop community gardens to instill pride and ownership, promote community cohesiveness, and increase the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods. 

Societal-Level Interventions 

Neighborhood Associations (NAS) and Homeowner Associations (HOAs) – The grantee site is working with the Mayor’s office to establish NAS in 6 districts. NAS and HOAs can address local and community-wide issues and concerns and provide residents with a sense of empowerment and cohesiveness in their neighborhoods and communities. They can also help support work with the police and community organizations.  

Citizen Town Halls – Through Citizen Town Hall meetings, residents will be able to articulate their concerns directly to leadership from the Mayor’s office and the City of Bessemer. The grantee site will use these discussions to drive policy reform and strengthen police-community partnerships.  

Community Service in Lieu of Jail Time – Working directly with the Magistrate’s Office and Bessemer City Government, the grantee site will create opportunities for youth to give back to their community after an infraction to avoid jail time. The goal will be to decrease the amount of contact youth offenders have with the criminal justice system and empower them to be leaders within their community.  

Support Services – Underlying all of the grantee site’s intervention strategies, is the goal of connecting community members in-need with support services. Facilitators of interventions will be able to refer program participants to support services, like Mommies Lounge, Fountain of Life Ministries, The Cohill Foundation, Leaders of Excellence, and Brother Let’s Talk.

Other Key Partners

Bessemer Police Department, Bessemer Coalition, Bessemer Housing Authority, 100 Black Men of America, National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, and Movement Forward

This project is supported by Cooperative Agreement No. 2018-BJ-BX-K035 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.

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