The Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama kicked off its Next Level Series by hosting a public discussion with the highest-ranking law enforcement officers in Tuscaloosa County Wednesday afternoon.

The Series, seven different public forums scheduled between now and early April, will seek to examine all aspects of life in the Tuscaloosa area through discussions with the top leaders from the public, private and non-profit sectors.

The topic of Wednesday's meeting, the first in the Series, was public safety and its panel of experts featured Tuscaloosa Police Chief Brent Blankley, Northport Police Chief Gerald Burton, University of Alabama Police Department Chief John Hooks, Grace Prince from the Tuscaloosa County District Attorney's Office and Byron Waid, the Chief Deputy of the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

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The law enforcement leaders, whose combined experience in police work spans decades, opened the discussion by talking about what works well in the area, the challenges they face and how things have changed since they began their careers in law enforcement.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

As for what works, the officials had high praise for the collaboration between local law enforcement agencies. Members from each agency make up the Tuscaloosa Violent Crimes Unit, the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force and more. Rather than quibbling over jurisdictional issues, the departments all work together, especially to solve the most serious crimes in the area.

"We all police our own jurisdictions every day, but like the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force, everybody at this table puts somebody in that unit," Blankley said. "VCU, everybody at this table puts somebody in that unit, our Human Trafficking Task Force -- we are all in these together, and we do that so we can go all over the county. While we're still seperate agencies with separate city and county lines, we do have multiple Metro units that do work together in one body."

The list of challenges the group faces was substantial, though -- all agencies reported problems recruiting and retraining officers and deputies. All advocated for increased involvement with young children to discourage crime while the chances of redirecting someone's path in life are still good. And all decried the status quo in the Tuscaloosa area, where those responsible for violent crime are often repeat offenders with a long history with local police.

"20 percent of the people we deal with cause 80-90 percent of the crime," Burton said. "When they commit a crime in Northport, they've likely already committed a crime in Tuscaloosa or the sheriff's jurisdiction."

And all advocated for increased mental health resources in the Tuscaloosa area, as their agencies are increasingly tasked with using police resources to interact with people who need mental health services instead.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

The panel also asked the business leaders at the Chamber event to consider installing high-quality cameras around the areas they work and readily sharing videos caught on those cameras with law enforcement agencies.

Blankley even teased a soon-to-come program called Safeguard Tuscaloosa that will allow police agencies in the area to access the live camera feeds of businesses who opt in to participate in the program, which the police leaders said will assist officers in catching suspects in real-time -- check out the Thread Thursday for more on that initiative.

The Next Series will continue every Wednesday except March 17th until its conclusion in April. Each meeting will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the multipurpose room at the C.A. Fredd Campus at Shelton State Community College on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in Tuscaloosa next to the McDonald Hughes Community Center.

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for updates from each meeting in the Series as they occur.

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