At the corner of Broadway and 10th Street, less than a block from the site of an already infamous beating that allegedly involved five soldiers, Maj. Gen. Robert Brown stepped out of an SUV and into the Columbus nightlife.
The Fort Benning commander wore civilian clothes for his unannounced visit Friday night, but word of his presence spread quickly, even among privates who knew nothing of Brown’s mission. Brown cordially greeted a handful of reporters and two uniformed men wearing arm brassards emblazoned with the words “Courtesy Patrol.”
Friday marked the first night of a new military presence in downtown that post and city officials hope will bolster security in the bustling bar district and remind soldiers to be on their best behavior. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, an officer and senior non-commissioned officer will walk up and down Broadway from about 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., seeking to keep the peace.
“We’re going to be stepping inside bars, clubs and restaurants that run between Ninth and 12th Street and asking security guards and bouncers whether there’ve been any problems,” said 1st Lt. David Fabozzi. “For example, if the soldier’s too drunk, we can ask him to get in a cab or we can ask for him to call for a ride. We cannot physically restrain the soldier in any way and if it comes to the point when the confrontation is about to get physical, we can ask the Columbus Police Department to step in.”
In addition to checking in on the courtesy patrols, Brown said he also came downtown to enjoy a night with his family. But after a somewhat delayed response to the beating, in which four Benning soldiers were charged two weeks ago with aggravated battery, it was clear that post officials sought to send a message to soldiers and the community. In downtown, the stakes are high for the post and the city on the weekend, and both entities have seemed acutely aware of public perception in light of the recent violence, which included a fatal shooting that did not involve any soldiers.
Still, Brown stressed that incidents involving military personnel are few and far between.
“That incident a few weeks ago definitely brought it to the point where we said, ‘OK, it’s time to do it,’” Brown said, referring to the new patrols. “With 99.9 percent of the soldiers, we never have an issue and they do a great job. Sometimes, unfortunately, when alcohol’s involved, young folks will make stupid decisions. And that happens all over the world.”
Brown added: “We’re the fabric of the community, and we want the image to be the guys are out there helping at the House of Heroes and volunteering all over the place and doing the right thing, not the occasional, very rare individual that will do something stupid.”
Richard Bishop, president of Uptown Columbus, welcomed the courtesy patrols and said he does not think they are an overreaction to the beating.
“Two years ago, we had (military police) down here every Friday and Saturday night and that was a great marriage between the city, police department and MPs, and we’ll have that same partnership with the courtesy patrols,” he said. “I don’t think you’d go into any community or mid-sized city and find that there was not a perception of safety issues in your downtown. Our goal is to make it safe for all of our visitors, and if more security helps us to do that, then let’s have at it.”
On Friday night, the sight of Fabozzi and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Hampton generated quite a buzz. In the moments before Brown arrived, a drunken heckler approached the pair rambling, and one woman stopped just to say hello.
In interviews downtown, current and former soldiers offered mixed reaction to their camouflage-clad colleagues working the street. Sgt. 1st Class Mike Bloom, who is stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., said he has seen courtesy patrols in downtown Tacoma.
“They have them up there and they make a difference,” said Bloom, who is at Fort Benning for training. “Soldiers see the senior enlisted and the officer up there and even if they’ve been drinking, the uniform kind of brings them back to ‘I have a responsibility and an obligation’ and it kind of straightens them out.”
John Howard, who used to be in ROTC at Eastern Kentucky University, said the courtesy patrols show a willingness by military officials “to help out on the civilian side.”
“If the military is willing to sacrifice some of their CPs off base to come down here to make sure downtown Columbus is safe, we’re good, man,” Howard said.
But James Robinson, who served in the military for eight years, including a tour of duty in Iraq, said he is more ambivalent about Courtesy Patrols. “Sometimes you end up with characters who take the courtesy patrol to a different level like they’re ICE or Border Patrol,” he said, referring to the federal law enforcement agencies. “I felt safer with the military police, and there’s a big difference. (Courtesy Patrols) can’t do much of nothing. If a fight breaks out, they’re not going to go in there and stop the fight.”
One young private called the patrols “an extreme overreaction” to the beating that could unfairly stigmatize soldiers trying to unwind downtown.
“I think it will just get (soldiers) in more trouble,” he said. “In real life, these things happen on a constant basis every night.”