Neighbors, law enforcement confront rising homicide rate in Columbus

ariquelmy@ledger-enquirer.comApril 27, 2012 

Rita Sheffield and J Mize walk around Lakebottom Park each morning. It's convenient for both of them, and as regulars they've come to recognize the familiar faces that frequent the Midtown park.

And a spurt of homicides in the city this year, including one in a house fronting the south end of the park, isn't going to stop their daily routine.

A house at the southwest end of Lakebottom, 1515 18th Ave., was the site of Columbus' fifth of 11 homicides this year. Those 11 homicides happened in the first four months of the year.

That's compared with 14 homicides in 2011 and 15 for 2010.

"In my opinion it was like, that could have happened anywhere," Mize said. "It's not just random shootings."

Sheffield said some of her friends chasten her for frequenting the park, but she shrugs it off.

"It's just a great meeting spot," she said. "There's some nice people that walk around here."

After Michael Crowley was found fatally stabbed March 13 inside his 18th Avenue home, Mize and Sheffield noticed increased police patrols in the area. However, Lakebottom is known for car break-ins, especially during Little League season, said Columbus Police Lt. Lynn Joiner. Increasing the number of patrol cars can have an effect on car break-ins, but it likely won't do anything to the number of homicides.

That's because homicides are often committed in the heat of passion, Joiner said.

"A lot of times murder is spur of the moment," he said. "A lot of times you've got to be standing on top of it to stop it."

The numbers

The number of Columbus homicides has varied in the past five years. There were 23 homicides in 2007, 29 in 2008, 12 in 2009, 15 in 2010, and 14 in 2011, according to police records.

Eleven homicides have occurred in Columbus this year. If homicides continue at the pace they've been occurring, Columbus will have 33 by this year's end.

Joiner, however, said homicides can't be predicted.

"It doesn't really give you a pattern," Joiner said of the number of homicides this year. "You can't say, the first quarter we had 11 so we're probably going to have 44. If you start trying to predict murders, you're going to fail."

Lt. Bill Rawn agreed. Using statistics such as time and place can help police predict a crime such as robbery. That doesn't work with homicides.

"It doesn't work with a crime of passion," Rawn said. "I don't know what's going to set you off."

What is known is that many homicides are committed by someone close to the victim. Two of this year's 11 homicides involved a parent accused of killing an infant. Two other homicides this year involved a husband or boyfriend killing his wife or girlfriend.

Police suspect the recent homicide at the Sands Apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was a drug deal gone wrong. It's another example of the victim knowing his assailants, Joiner said.

"A majority of these crimes, the people know each other," Joiner said. "But it's a case-by-case basis."

Prevention, prosecution

Homicide may be a crime that's near impossible to prevent, but Bibb City resident Chris Johnson thinks that it, and other crimes, can be reduced with community involvement.

Johnson has seen the effects of crime first hand. The president of the Bibb Village Neighborhood Association and organizer of the area's neighborhood watch, he said community involvement is one answer to curbing crime.

"Crime is down in Bibb City because we came together as a community," he said. "We call 911. That's our weapon -- 911. And it works."

Being involved isn't limited to only calling the authorities when needed. Johnson's group holds monthly meetings. It also sponsors beautification projects in Bibb City.

Johnson said crime can never be completely eliminated, but that a neighborhood can improve itself if its residents work together. He said if every area in Columbus formed a neighborhood watch and kept it active, the crime rate would drop.

"If everyone would do that in Columbus, I think the murders would go down," Johnson said. "It wouldn't stop it, but it would make a difference."

Joiner said that calls from residents help police make most of their arrests.

"The neighborhoods that are real proactive about it, they can reduce their crime," he said. "But preventing a husband killing his wife, there's nothing a community can do."

Every homicide with an arrest in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit eventually makes its way to the office of District Attorney Julia Slater.

Twenty prosecutors work for Slater, whose purview includes Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Taylor, Talbot and Marion counties. Of those 20 prosecutors, 16 have the experience to try murder cases, Slater said.

Each assistant district attorney who handles murder cases has two to three such cases on his or her schedule at any given time. Slater's two senior prosecutors each have five murder cases.

"The number of hours spent in preparing a murder case for court is greater than any other category of crime," Slater said. "Although the state's preparation on every case is thorough, when a person has lost their life, the cases are often more complicated, the defendant is more likely to exercise his or her right to a trial, and the preparation requires more time."

Murder cases in Columbus can take several months to years before reaching a jury. One 2008 murder case has yet to reach a grand jury.

But those homicides aren't something Sheffield and Mize obsess over when walking around Lakebottom Park.

"I don't sit around and think Columbus has horrible things happening here," Sheffield said. "I can't live like that, worried about what's going to happen to me the next minute."

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