Mayor continues bold pledge: Mobile will be 'safest city in America by 2020.' Is it doable?

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Since 2013, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has pledged to make Mobile the 'safest city in America by 2020.' His

mayor-continues-bold-pledge-mobile-will-be-safest-city-in-america-by-2020-is-it-doable photo 1Mobile Police Department Officer Shonee Mingo prepares to begin his patrol on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016. (file photo)

In 2013, Sandy Stimpson won the Mobile mayoral election on a campaign platform of "One Mobile" and a promise to establish, among other things, the "safest city in America by 2020."

In his 2017 re-election campaign, Stimpson is doubling down on his pledge: Mobile will be No. 1 when it comes to public safety.

At present, a host of ratings, most of which are backed with annual FBI Uniform Crime Statistics, doesn't put Mobile anywhere near the top of safety lists. In fact, a February ranking by alarms.org - the website for the National Council for Home Safety and Security trade group -- didn't list Mobile in a ranking of the top 50 safest cities in Alabama.

Alabama, itself, was ranked as the 10th most dangerous state during a November 2016 analysis by the website 24/7 Wall St. In 2014, an AL.com analysis of cities with a population over 100,000 people, placed Mobile at No. 67 for overall crime and 47th for homicides.

Stimpson is undeterred. Despite a jump in homicides last year and concerns about youth gun violence, Stimpson believes Mobile is on the right track and points to the city's 21st century policing techniques as leading the way toward an overall decline in crime.

Statistics for major crimes -- murder, robbery, aggravated assaults, grand larceny, motor vehicle thefts and rapes - are at or near 30-year lows in Mobile.

"I do believe we'll be the safest city in America by 2020," said Stimpson. "I knew from the beginning that we would never fulfill a vision if we didn't cast one. So, it was important to make this pledge to the people of Mobile, and we can get there together."

Former Mayor Sam Jones, Stimpson's chief opponent in next Tuesday's election, said that Mobile has a long way to go before reaching Stimpson's pledge. Stimpson defeated Jones in 2013.

"We're not even in the top 100," Jones said. "We are a long way from that."

Pursuing safety

For James Barber, the city's executive director of public safety since April and the former police chief, said the goal is to "turn off the spigot" that leads to high violent crime and recidivism rates.

The city has emphasized a 21st century policing technique that moves officers away from saturation patrols and instead emphasizes a  community-friendly approach of identifying criminals. It also seeks to bring technology to the fore to rapidly pinpoint crime hot spots.

The idea, according to Barber and new Police Chief Lawrence Battiste, is build trust between the neighborhoods and to change the police culture from focusing on "output" measures - for instance, the tally of tickets issued - to "outcome" measures.

Mobile police are also homing in on the city's youth, a strategy that comes less than one year after about a dozen teenagers were killed by gun violence during a bloody October 2016.

Barber and Battiste said they've introduced numerous programs within elementary, middle and high schools. Some have been recognized nationally, such as "Bridging the Gap," which aims to rebuild  trust between police and youths.

Statistics provided by Mobile police show that the efforts are finding success. Arrests at Mobile schools in 2016-17, for instance, were half the total of 2009-10.

But homicides remain a problem. Barber described last year's spike as an anomaly driven by the bloodshed in a single month, October.

The city had 44 homicides in 2016, up from 23 in 2015.

Thus far in 2017, the homicide number stands at 27, compared to 22 at this point in 2016.

During the past three decades, Mobile's worst homicide year was 1994, with 60 killings.

Still, overall crime is trending downward. For 2016, there were slightly less than 14,000 reports of major crimes in Mobile. That represented a slight uptick from 2015 and 2014, but a substantial decrease from the 1990s, when the years brought anywhere from 18,000 to nearly 22,000 reports of major crimes.

Barber acknowledged that there's a perception among some in the public that Mobile has a crime problem. He said, "Perception of crime is driven by people's feelings of being safe. A lot of that is driven by what they see in the media and the news. But access to information is far easier than it was 10 years ago. Social media, Next Door. The Police Department is constantly communicating directly to neighborhoods about crime that occurs in the neighborhood. When 10 years ago, you might not know about the house down the street that was broken into, today you do."

Criminal justice experts believe the perception issue is impacting the public's views about crime nationwide, not just in Mobile.

"Part of making a city safe or labeling a city as 'safe' isn't just about the numbers, but how people feel," said Sarah Koon-Magnin, associate professor in the department of political science and criminal justice at the University of South Alabama.

Battiste said Mobile has studied its progress toward safety with like-sized cities with similar-sized police departments.

"We've looked at the other cities and what made them the safest cities," said Battiste. "Not those that are the worst, but the best and what they were doing to make themselves the best. Did they have social problems in their communities as we do? What are they doing to make sure they are engaging in the community to make sure they are part of the process in a positive way?"

He said that it's a "realistic goal" to become the safest city by 2020 "as long as you are moving forward and are not complacent."

Battiste said the city wants to compare Mobile's progress toward safety with like-sized cities with similar-sized police departments.

"We've looked at the other cities and what made them the safest cities," said Battiste. "Not those that are the worst, but the best and what they were doing to make themselves the best. Did they have (similar) social problems in their communities as we do? What are they doing to make sure they are engaging in the community to make sure they are part of the process in a positive way? It's a realistic goal (to become the safest city by 2020) as long as you are moving forward and are not complacent."

Barber said cities like Daphne, Fairhope and Spanish Fort - three Baldwin County cities near Mobile, which were cited in the alarms.org ranking for safety - are not considered a part of the comparison since they do not mirror Mobile in demographics and population size.

The same goes for Helena, a growing city of more than 18,000 people located 25 miles south of downtown Birmingham. Helena has, on more than one occasion, appeared on an Internet ranking as the No. 1 safest city in Alabama. In the alarms.org listing, Helena was credited for having a violent crime rate that was "five times lower than the state average."

Helena Police Chief Pete Folmar said the low crime rate "is an attraction to people who are looking to relocate and to businesses who are looking for new opportunities to do business."

Equipping officers

Former Mayor Jones said the city's approach toward staffing is causing it to fall behind in battling crime.

During a candidate forum at a city high school on Monday, Jones criticized Stimpson's administration for having fewer police officers employed than when he was mayor from 2005-13.

And while Jones praised the recent hiring of Mark Sealy as the city's fire chief, he said the Fire-Rescue department is operating with fewer firefighters on ladder trucks. "We ride three firemen per truck and that is dangerous," Jones said. "We now need two trucks to enter a house to put out a fire and that is dangerous. We have fewer fire stations, less firemen."

Barber said the approach in recent years is to better equip and train police and firefighters. He said the city, under Stimpson's administration, has focused on replacing its aging fleet. At one point, he said the city had a fleet of 650 vehicles, with "10 to 15 percent in the shop at any one time." Some vehicles, Barber said, had over 300,000 miles on them.

"We've reduced that down to about 500 vehicles now but the vehicles we have now have service plans and all we are replacing is oil and tires," said Barber. "The cars are safer. We once had cars catching on fire. One had tires that were literally falling off."

Stimpson said the city purchased 376 new police vehicles and five new fire trucks during his first term.

Said Barber: "I'd rather have 500 officers who are well-equipped, motivated and compensated (fairly) than having 650 officers who are not well-equipped, not well-trained and who are poorly compensated and looking for a job somewhere else."

Stimpson said that police and firefighters have been given raises four times during his first four years in office. In turn, the major police and firefighter unions with the city and county have endorsed his re-election.

Building trust

Improving trust between police and the city's neighborhoods is a major element of Stimpson's overall safest-city goal.

Jennifer Kenney, assistant professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Alabama, said there remains a distinct lack of trust with police illuminated by cell phone video of footage of whenever questionable police tactics are deployed.

Mobile was in the middle of a police shooting controversy in June 2016, after Officer Harold Hurst, who is white, shot and killed a young black man, Michael Moore, during a traffic stop.

"As a general statement, I would say any relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police and strengthening them are a positive thing," said Koon-Magnin. "Community policing remains and important priority."

The city is ponying up some of its own money to host events designed to train law enforcement officers from around the Southeast on recognizing biases. A Sept. 28 training session at the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center is expected to draw 300 officers for a day of training to learn how implied or implicit biases may be perceived by others.

"It's leading edge," said Barber. "The Mobile Police Department is that for the region ... we are doing what we can to build trust."

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Article Mayor continues bold pledge: Mobile will be 'safest city in America by 2020.' Is it doable? compiled by Original article here

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