Less muscle, more nurturing reduces Bay Minette's crime rate


Matt Richards

The Bay Minette Police Department raised the bar for law enforcement in the last two years, reducing violent crime by 11 percent and becoming a model police department for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

The formula: Entrenchment in the community with a plethora of programs intended to help people make the right decisions.

“We curb crime by preventing it rather than only enforcing it,” said Police Chief Michael Rowland. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t enforce it.”

The approach started two years ago under the nationwide Weed and Seed program. The department used the grant to fund such programs as the Gang Resistance Education and Training, Explorer Clubs and the Youth Police Academy.

They also put an officer on duty in every school in Bay Minette.

It worked. The crime rate of Bay Minette dropped while most cities in the U.S. increased. It dropped so much that the department no longer qualifies as a Weed and Seed grant recipient.

“It was like a Catch-22. Once we lowered crime we lost the money we were using to lower it,” chuckled Lt. Jimmy Franklin over the paradox.

But they haven’t slowed a single stride toward involving themselves in the community even more. Their programs have evolved since and more grants have found a way to the station.

They’ve gotten $20,450 from Project Safe Neighborhood and $17,000 from the Anti-Gang Initiative to plug into their next community outreach idea.

“Our next biggest step is the safe haven,” Rowland said.

The “safe haven” is set to be a “one-stop-shop” for all the services a community can require, according to Franklin. It’ll be a safe house for anyone from domestic violence, mentoring center for children, and even help the formerly incarcerated transition into an honest life.

“If you go in there, we’ll help you,” Franklin said.

In the case of domestic violence, they’ll scoop up the abused and take them wherever they can get help locally. Also, if kids are getting pressure from gangs, they’ll find a safe place there. The program also offers tutoring for the kids and youth sports leagues.

Set to be on the opposite side of the building, the re-entry program is designed to help with the transition out of prison any way possible. They’ll help those with problems abusing drugs and alcohol, mental health issues and even small stuff like how to get one’s drivers license back.

That service will be by appointment only for those who just got out, as long as they’re not sex offenders, because they plan to have children there at any time, according to Rowland.

“A lot of people get out of prison and don’t know how to ask these questions,” Franklin said. “There will be someone there to do that specifically.”

According to Franklin, there’s a 70 percent repeat offender rate in communities without a re-entry program, but only a 30 percent rate in communities with such a program.

“This is our way of helping them back into society instead of letting them fall back into a life of crime,” Franklin said.

The safe house will even help those convicted find employers who won’t have a problem hiring them.

There will be an officer or volunteer on duty anytime between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. when it opens. However, that shouldn’t be too far in the future because they’re close to inking a deal with the Baldwin County Board of Education for the use of the gymnasium and several classrooms at the vacant Douglasville High, more recently known as Bay Minette Intermediate School.

Once the deal is complete, a new police precinct will be the first part of the safe house. Then the department plans to be up and running 30 to 60 days after moving in.

But that’s just one part of the strategic plan Rowland masterminded. It all started when he sat down with residents and representatives of different agencies all across Bay Minette. They talked about the different issues that contribute to crime, i.e., low job availability and lack of social services in some neighborhoods.

“We came away from that with a pretty comprehensive plan to prevent crime,” Rowland said. “The idea is if people have access to these services early on they’ll use them.”

Aside from the safe house, the department is targeting children, specifically, beginning as early as fourth and seventh grade — the “turn-around” years, according to Franklin.

In the Gang Resistance Education and Training program, the fourth graders get a six-week course and the seventh graders a 13-week course. A police officer teaches an hour a day mainly on how to ignore peer and gang pressure, but they have to pass a test if they want to graduate, according to Rowland.

“There are a few who want to be in a gang or get recruited by gang members,” Franklin said. “But we try to get ahead of them and teach them that the glamour of fancy cars and easy money isn’t what it’s all about.

“Nobody usually mentions going to prison or getting shot when they’re telling them how great the gang life is.”

Then there’s a school resource officer at every school every day, but Bay Minette funds their own, an aspect which makes them unique from the majority of other cities in Baldwin County. Not only is the SRO there to control potentially chaotic situations but also to snatch up evildoers threatening the community’s children. The police officers act as a liaison between the police and the school board.

“We have had outstanding cooperation with Bay Minette because they are one of few who mostly fund themselves,” said Terry Wilhite, spokesman for Baldwin County School Board. “We couldn’t imagine school without them anymore.”

Also, the officers on duty at the schools are someone the kids can talk to if they need it. Many students often confide and trust the officers dearly, according to Wilhite.

“It really pays off because the kids see a positive role model in school,” Rowland said. “And they talk to them on a human basis. So they’re not just a blue uniform, and there have been a couple crimes prevented by the students talking to the officers.”

After school, the highschoolers have the opportunity to dip their toes in what would be a taste of a police officer’s world.

It’s called the Explorer Club. While they do learn how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, radar gun tactics and more, they only meet for a couple hours once a month during the school year.

But if the students crave more, there’s always the Youth Police Academy, which gathers for all of every Saturday in August.

“The academy is much better,” said Cadet Elizabeth Coxwell, president of both organizations their first year, 2005. “You actually get to go outside and handcuff people.”

At the youth academy, students get a stronger taste of police work. They run the same obstacle course and take the same physical fitness test as actual police officers. Also, they get to sit down with the professionals and soak up any knowledge they can, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Scene Investigators class and much more given by the BMPD.

“The youth academy really prepared me for now,” Coxwell said of being the first Police Cadet for the BMPD. “Especially, the discipline did.”

However, parents shouldn’t just drop their kids off for an impromptu boot camp, according to Coxwell. Everyone, in her experience, wanted to be there, which makes it easier on everybody.

“If one person screws up everybody gets punished,” she said. “Just like a real police academy will be.”

But these programs aren’t just well planned out recruiting tools.

“We hope to groom some good police officers but the real purpose is to give the kids positive experiences and good alternatives to drugs and crime,” Rowland said.

Coxwell laughed when she remembered a set of twins who attended the youth academy. Two years later and with no connection whatsoever to the police force, they still salute her if she chances upon them somewhere in Bay Minette.

When all the pieces fell together, Bay Minette’s crime dropped. Rowland’s answer was simple in its complexity.

“We’re such a close knit community that any problems facing one neighborhood face all of them,” he said. “We work on it as one community as a whole. All our neighborhoods are like one big family.”