May election candidates respond: How best do we fight crime?

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comApril 26, 2014 

We so often say "crime can happen anywhere," it's a cliché.

But it's true: Crime can happen anywhere. It just happens way more often in some places than in others.

Columbus knows where those places are. It can map them by reports from police patrol zones.

This election year much of the political debate has been whether annual statistics show crime here is trending up or down. Yet all candidates agree any crime is too much.

So instead of weighing year-to-year statistics, the Ledger-Enquirer asked candidates what we can do about crime where residents expect it.

A high-crime zone in Columbus typically is a neighborhood in decline, where home ownership drops amid a rise in cheap rental property poorly maintained. As aging longtime residents who stabilized the area die or move away, they leave behind vacant houses, accelerating the decline.

Run-down property can harbor criminal enterprises, as shown last year by a police probe of so-called "party houses" off Cusseta Road, particularly one on Garden Drive. A party house is an unlicensed nightclub in a home where strippers may entertain men who are served alcohol.

The Garden Drive party house was in police patrol Zone 31, where a dilapidated trailer park also drew authorities' attention after neighbors complained.

Zone 31's eastern border is Bull Creek, long the vertical crosshair in the scope of Columbus crime. The horizontal crosshair could be Cusseta Road or Victory Drive.

Just south of Victory Drive, trailer parks line the bluff where Bull Creek nears the Chattahoochee River. That neighborhood also ranks high in crime stats.

That's patrol Zone 17, in Columbus Council District 7, where incumbent Mimi Woodson this year faces challenger Xavier McCaskey.

Ranking higher than Zone 17 in 2013 crime statistics was Zone 51, in East Carver Heights, part of Columbus Council District 1, where incumbent Jerry "Pops" Barnes faces challenger Zeph Baker.

As a whole

Like the mayor, at-large Post 9 Councilor Judy Thomas, who faces challenger Felicia Hamilton, represents the entire city, encompassing all neighborhoods, all patrol zones.

But the mayor, as director of public safety, has the primary responsibility for fighting crime.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson says her administration has focused police efforts where they're most needed and hit specific hot spots where violence spiked or criminals operated with impunity.

She cites the city's targeting one-story cinderblock apartments on Wade Street where drugs and prostitution flourished, giving that patrol zone, Zone 18, one of the highest crime rates in the city.

In October 2011, the city declared that spot, called "The Hole," a "criminal haven." The owners responded by selling to the city, which demolished the old apartments. Now the city seeks proposals for redevelopment.

Crime in Zone 18, though still high, has dropped. The number of "Part I" or more serious offenses decreased from 258 in 2010 to 252 in 2011, and then to 190 in 2012 and 158 in 2013.

"So there you go from these crime havens increasing particular crimes in that area to no crime -- there's nobody there -- and hopefully a very stable community," the mayor said.

It is not enough to eliminate the haven; it must be replaced, Tomlinson said. Vacant lots don't add much value to a neighborhood, either.

"You just can't raze it and leave it a vacant property," she said. "I think that's such a demoralizing thing to the community. It just adds to the blight. … You've got to bring in some sort of vibrancy."

Such gaps may be filled by housing initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity or NeighborWorks Columbus, which are accustomed to working in low-income areas that need new homes.

'Get rid of that place'

The Rev. Willie Phillips heads the neighborhood group Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs of the network Columbus Against Drugs.

He says targeting criminal havens works.

"That is real effective -- find a place like that, and get rid of that place, and that will take a lot of problems out of the community," he said.

The city last year also shut down the Majestic Sports Bar after a Columbus State University student was killed in a spray of gunfire there New Year's Day. Six others were wounded.

Phillips lives behind the old Cusseta Road club, and he was among those who campaigned to close it.

Closing it not only eliminated a nuisance, but also it reduced trouble in the neighborhood behind it, he said. "That really solved a lot of problems in the community."

Zone 31's trailer park

Phllips has similar issues with a trailer park in Zone 31. The mayor has served notice the property must meet building codes or the city will take action.

"I like the strategy she came up with, letting them know to clean it up, or else," Phillips said.

Some police say eliminating one hot spot is not a solution, because criminals just move somewhere else.

That may be true, Phillips said, but residents just want the threat gone.

Remove it, and they're not afraid to form neighborhood watch groups, he said. "That's why it's so important for all the people to get involved in their neighborhood and get rid of places like this."

Going after gangs

Mayoral candidate Colin Martin says Tomlinson has not gone after gangs, nor listened to law enforcement professionals, instead giving them orders.

"I think we need to let the law enforcement officers tell us where they would attack it first," he said of crime.

Criminal enterprises like gangs aren't limited to specific areas, as evidenced by the gang indicted for armed robberies tied to the homicide of jewelry store manager Steve Toms, he said.

"I do believe less than a place is a problem, and we've got to just go ahead and say we've got a gang problem. … Let's go attack the problem of working on these gangs."

He cites a program in High Point, N.C., where authorities assembled young offenders with outstanding warrants and told them they would go to jail if they didn't straighten up.

Said Martin: "We can follow a similar program, get rid of the worst bad guys who are running the gangs ... and then take these low-level guys and say, 'Look, keep your life on the straight and narrow, and your record will never come up, but if you get in trouble, your record's coming back in full force and you're going to spend a long time in jail.'"

Tackling organized crime will secure neighborhoods, he added. "Let's attack that problem, and then the geography takes care of itself. … I'm less concerned about a place than a mindset."

A police officer told Martin that 11 gangs are in Columbus.

"We may find ourselves with a really serious gang problem," he said.

He said whether crime stats are trending up or down doesn't matter to victims.

"I am very sincere when I say crime has a face," Martin said. "We do not need to do law enforcement and public safety just for the criminal. We do it for the victim. We do it for the citizens who don't want to be victims. Statistics don't matter if you're the victim."

Council District 7

Like Martin, District 7 challenger Xavier McCaskey also talked about gangs.

He listed seven he says are operating in District 7 and says they trash-talk on social media, a macho battle of words known as "beefing."

Gangs substitute for the structure young men lack in their lives, he said.

"The infrastructure of a gang is like a family unit, and most of these guys don't have no family," he said. "They come from displaced homes, parents in jail, parents on drugs. They're being raised by their grandfathers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles. They have no structure or purpose."

McCaskey said he wants to tell those young men: "You can go on and be so much better in life, because if you can put all your time and effort into doing something bad, you can take that same time and effort and put it into doing something good, and be better."

Common traits prone to trouble are "low education, no work or social skills, no family structure," he said. "You've got to give them something to be good for, so that's why my campaign is 'jobs, jobs, jobs.'"

Growing up, he stayed out of trouble by working when he wasn't in school, he said. "If you give them jobs, or something to do, it alleviates gang pressure."

The public also needs to feel it can trust law enforcement, he said. He wants police officers to spend more time talking to residents: "I want police to become involved in the community more. … There's a distrust between the African-American community and the police officers."

Woodson also says the city needs to enhance community policing to strengthen links between residents and patrol officers.

She has been discussing it with Police Chief Ricky Boren, she said.

"I'm working with him on how we can enhance that, so the community will feel comfortable they know who are these officers in their area and feel comfortable to go speak to them."

Neighborhood leaders need to be more involved in what the city's trying to do, she said. "It takes more than just an elected official in government. It takes the people and it takes community. The problem that we're having is that we might find a solution, but then sometimes the people are afraid to stand up."

Residents working with police can prevent crime before it happens, she said. "Sometimes people in the community know what's going on, but they won't share because they're afraid. And there's some way we have to work over that so they find a link or something that they won't be afraid to communicate."

That fear is illustrated in court cases in which witnesses are afraid to testify, she said.

"There's still lots of work, and only one entity cannot do it. We have to come together, and not be afraid. 'Do not be afraid,' that is the key thing right there. ... The communities have to come together. They can't wait until something happens. They know these things are happening in their community, but they're not speaking, and they need to speak in order to get help."

Council District 1

Barnes, the incumbent in District 1, also stresses the importance of community in fighting crime.

"The people have to be the eyes and ears of the CPD," he says of the Columbus Police Department.

But the police have to know the people to enlist their aid, he said. He suggests officers get out of their cruisers and use bicycles to patrol, or walk. That way they not only meet residents they'd otherwise drive past, but also can sneak up on criminals who can see a police car coming and might be caught off-guard by an officer walking or biking.

The city also needs more neighborhood watch programs to help the police to fight crime, he said.

Such goals rest upon the city's having a full force of police officers, Barnes added. It must not only recruit officers, but also retain those it hires, with longevity pay for experienced officers affected by "compression," or pay which so stagnates over time that the incentives given recruits raise a rookie's pay over a veteran's.

Another crime-fighting aid would be engaging younger residents in job-skills programs, Barnes said. He would like Columbus' crime prevention program to include public-private partnerships for youth to enroll at Columbus Technical College or Miller-Mott.

Zeph Baker also wants to help young people likely to get involved in crime.

Baker says home burglaries are an issue in District 1, and most are committed by people 25 and younger.

They need something to occupy their time, he said.

"We do not have adequate recreational space in District 1. There is not a super recreational center. ..."

He also promotes community policing, particularly daytime patrols when home burglaries are most likely.

"We need to make sure our neighborhoods are being patrolled by law enforcement specifically during the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., because those are times that a lot of your burglaries take place."

He said high crime erodes the whole environment, leading to low economic activity and low academic achievement, leaving youngsters without work skills: "So then you're making an impact on bringing the jobs into that area, and overall, into our city."

Crime also increases insurance costs, scaring business away, he said. "Crime impacts all the other areas. It's difficult to get the jobs that we need if we're not making significant progress in decreasing our criminal activity."

The big picture

In the citywide council race, incumbent Judy Thomas and challenger Felicia Hamilton also talk about engaging youth.

Hamilton, like Baker, said much of the crime is committed by those 25 or younger, and they need recreation facilities.

But they also need a sense of responsibility for improving their own neighborhoods, Hamilton said: "Involvement" and "engagement" give them the chance to find their own solutions. If they feel city leaders want their input, they'll feel valued instead of alienated, she said.

Thomas, the incumbent, said some younger residents seem to take more pride in causing trouble.

"It seems that there are some of these folks who are doing these crimes to whom jail is not a deterrent. They don't care if they go to jail. In fact for some of them, it's a rite of passage," she said. "All their friends have been."

That's an issue all institutions and agencies have to tackle as a team, she said -- not just the city government, but the schools, churches and social services.

Research shows younger people need evening activities, she said: "We have seen all the studies that say if you keep kids and teenagers busy in an organized activity from 3 o'clock to 6 o'clock, you'll keep them out of trouble."

On the administrative level, Thomas worries across-the-board budget cuts hurt essential services such as law enforcement.

"When we have the kind of crime that we have in some of our neighborhoods, we need to have people on the street," she said.

A visible police presence is a deterrent Columbus can't forego, she said, but the city needs more than patrol officers to fight crime: It needs investigators to back those officers up -- to analyze evidence, follow up on leads, and share information.

Often the same criminals commit multiple crimes, she said: "If you have 50 break-ins, there are not 50 different people doing the break-ins."

The police department is instituting a computer-based program to instantly compile and analyze crime data to establish patterns.

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