This story is part of a series on downtown Birmingham that explores issues raised by recent incidents, as well as the city's response to them.
As the weather warms up, crowds are returning to downtown Birmingham during the weekends — and with them comes disturbances and increased crime.
Although Birmingham Police say they don't expect this spring and summer to be any different — or more dangerous — than any other year, the recent incidents and the public outcry against them has raised the level of awareness and has prompted some early and proactive action.
And even though the department has fewer officers than in recent years, Birmingham Police Cmdr. Terry Kiernan said Chief Don Studt is confident the department can maintain public safety throughout the city.
"We go through this every year when it gets warm," Birmingham Police Cmdr. Terry Kiernan said last week. "We always increase the number of foot patrols downtown while trying to be prepared."
Kiernan did note that this spring, specifically the past few weeks, have been unique considering the kind of arrests happening downtown, as well as the public outcry against them.
Downtown residents say 'I think Birmingham is a very safe city'
On April 2, a 29-year-old Redford woman allegedly fired a handgun into the air outside Einstein Bros Bagels after leaving South Bar.
The following week, Birmingham-based Downtown Publications launched a petition asking the Birmingham City Commission to challenge South's liquor license, noting the "ongoing series of incidents (at South) ... constitutes a serious diversion of public safety resources from the rest of the Birmingham community."
Last week, Birmingham police arrested 18-year-old Troy High School senior Sean Michael Combs. Combs refused to show identification after he was caught carrying a loaded M1 Garand rifle near South Old Woodward and Merrill.
Other recent incidents include fights outside Chen Chow Brasserie and in the bar area at the Hamilton Room and a cab driver who was beaten up April 8 after customers from The Corner Bar refused to pay him.
Studt said last weekend, however, was quiet downtown. "That's the way we like it," he said.
While comments on Birmingham Patch stories and its Facebook page have decried South and other bars, other residents aren't so quick to call Birmingham unsafe or place blame on individual businesses.
Craig Backus is the owner of EmbroidMe on Woodward Avenue.
"Any community with a robust night life will have incidents like that that happen from time to time," Backus told Patch in an interview. "I choose not to be out in any community at 2 a.m., but that's my choice and I feel safest at that hour in my own home.
"The greatest threat to Birmingham's safety is empty spaces and reduced tax revenue," he added.
About South, Backus said he feels the bar and restaurant — which opened on South Old Woodward in 2010 — is being singled out.
"From everything I've heard and read, it doesn't appear that South Bar is doing anything inappropriate," he said. "Individual customers have a responsibility for acting in a lawful manner regardless of their alcohol intake, and should they not be able to control themselves, then they are the ones that should be paying the price."
Lauren Stein recently renovated a home in downtown Birmingham with her husband, Jon, and son Noah. Though only steps away from restaurants and busy intersections, she said she's never felt unsafe living downtown.
"I've certainly changed several things in regard to day-to-day safety, but I think that this is just a standard adjustment," she said. "For our recent move to downtown, we've upgraded our security and I've become more mindful of my surroundings. We have incredible neighbors, and it's nice to look out for each other."
Her husband Jon agrees.
"I think that Birmingham is a very safe city," he said. "The discussion lately has been a little sensational, but no one would dispute that some dangerous things have happened here. Those events need to be addressed ... but the whole city is not unsafe because a few upsetting things happened."
Shorter valet hours, adjusting to police staffing cuts
Birmingham police say they're paying attention, particularly because so many incidents have occurred in a short period of time.
On April 12, Birmingham Police Chief Don Studt notified the owners of South Bar, Chen Chow and Hamilton Room that they must shut down their valet service at midnight, instead of their 2 a.m. close times. Studt said the move was an attempt to break up the crowds that tend to form outside bars as patrons wait for their cars after closing.
And according to City Manager Bob Bruner, the change appears to be working. Bruner said Studt and City Attorney Tim Currier stationed themselves outside South after closing time on April 14, watching patrons file into the street and back to their cars. The street cleared safely, efficiently and quickly, Bruner said — the entire point of mandating shorter valet hours.
South Bar general manager Bethany Spadafore told Patch last week that South staff received several complaints about the shorter hours the first weekend the new rule was in effect, though no incidents occured outside the bar and restaurant.
As the spring and summer continues, Studt said Birmingham police plan to beef up enforcement on the weekends — just like they do every year. Still, this is the second year the Birmingham Police Department is operating with 29 officers, down from 35 in 2007. Since 2005-06, the department has eliminated 18 full-time positions.
At the city's 2012-13 budget presentation Saturday, Studt told Birmingham City Commissioners he manages his staff so there is a consistent number of people on the road at any given time.
"Do I want more officers? Yeah I would like more," he admitted. "We'll see what happens this year."
Studt did say he's wary about hiring more part-time officers to help make up manpower, noting full-time officers are more saavy about their beat and are generally more effective. Currently, the department is supported by a team of auxillary officers that serve as crowd control at high school athletic events as well as other special events.
Commissioners noted Saturday that public safety is one of the city's highest priorities.
"We don't need to be shy when it comes to public safety," Commissioner Scott Moore said, with Commission Tom McDaniel adding that the show of police strength during recent weekends has been "impressive."
About the Series
Residents, business owners and visitors to Birmingham have an interest in feeling safe in the city. This Patch series explores the voices of those who live, work and run the city of Birmingham., We hope it fosters a dialogue that illustrates issues and explores possible solutions.
A dialogue cannot be one-sided. Please add your thoughts below or contact editor Laura Houser at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call her at 248-534-9780, if you would like to contribute to this series.