Special Reports

With added numbers, police boost beats and feet on street in fight against drugs

There was a time when police had no time.

Falling close to 50 officers short of what then would have been a full force of 388, the Columbus Police Department had to stick to its first priority: Respond to 911 calls, based on urgency.

Officers had little time for the special drug-fighting operations on which residents relied to clean up their neighborhoods.

Today, with a new sales tax funding new law enforcement jobs, the number of officers is nearing 488, enough to expand the city’s police beats.

And that brings hope to community drug fighters.

Escalation of crime

In 2006, the police department had to scramble just to keep up with the 911 calls. Investigations, special operations and follow-ups to earlier crime reports took a back seat.

When an officer got tied up, and another urgent call in the same patrol area came in, someone from another beat was summoned, sometimes from across town.

During stormy rush hours, traffic accidents so occupied officers that it could take hours to catch up on calls that weren’t emergencies.

Police Maj. Stan Swiney, who heads the division that tracks crime reports and runs the 911 center, said that on one busy Friday evening, no patrol officers were actually on their assigned beats. All were somewhere else.

Crime waves hit neighborhoods unaccustomed to rashes of car break-ins, burglaries and robberies. Residents began to arm themselves and hire their own security teams.

In parts of town where neighborhood drug-fighting groups backed by police had driven out street dealers, the official pressure came off. In the Winterfield area off Cusseta Road, crack dealers began to move back in, occupying houses instead of setting up on street corners.

To cover Columbus’ 220 square miles, the police department for patrol duty started pulling officers from its vice squad that investigates drugs and prostitution, its motorcycle unit that investigates traffic fatalities, and its desk services staff that runs the front desk. Just keeping enough officers on the street became a struggle.

Deploying new officers

The fear that criminals roamed the town unmolested helped Mayor Jim Wetherington persuade voters in 2008 to pass a sales tax devoted primarily to hiring 100 new police officers and other law-enforcement agents.

Now the number of officers is nearing 488, enough to expand the city’s police beats — regional patrol areas of several square miles — from 26 to 36, adjusting their boundaries primarily to catch up with Columbus’ growth to the north and east.

The police department’s day shift, which hits the street around 7:30 a.m. each day, switched to 36 beats on Sept. 19. The evening and morning shifts will follow when there’s a full complement.

That means 36 uniformed officers will patrol specific geographic segments of the city, but it doesn’t mean only 36 will be deployed.

“You’ll have 36 people assigned to the blue and whites riding their beats, plus their sergeants, plus their lieutenant and captain,” said Swiney. Then there are specialized units, like tactical squads running specific operations and motorcycle officers monitoring traffic. “You might have 10 or 12 tact officers, and one or two or three motor units. It adds up to close to 50 or 55 units on any given day.”

As of Monday, the police department was 28 officers short of 488, and still hiring. “We’ve got a steady flow of people coming in, putting in applications,” said Maj. Wanna Barker-Wright, who heads the division that includes personnel. Many applicants, however, don’t make it through the initial screenings and background checks, she said.

Community policing

When its increased street patrols are fully staffed and functional, the department again will have the luxury of assigning some officers to “tact squads” for special operations. With time to spend meeting the residents in the neighborhoods they monitor, patrol officers are expected to take up “community policing,” an initiative Wetherington hopes will lead to officers knowing who belongs in an area and who doesn’t.

Special operations can be crucial in fighting illegal drugs and drug-related crime. Police use them to run undercover operations to catch street dealers and customers, like a “reverse sting” Sept. 19, 2008, on 26th Street between 16th and 15th Avenue in the East Highland area. Undercover officers posing as dealers sold fake crack to customers who were swarmed by patrol officers as they drove away. Fourteen were arrested.

Neighborhood drug fighters rely heavily on police and other local law enforcement agencies when they go on the offensive against crack dealers. To crack down on crack, leaders like the Rev. Willie Phillips of Winterfield on the Move Against Drugs need officers to come out and set up roadblocks — license and registration checks that catch careless dealers and their customers, and drive the drug business elsewhere. Without that backup, the neighborhood organizations are on their own.

Phillips believes the shortage of police officers in 2006 took the pressure off the drug dealers in his area. Now crime in his part of town is gaining momentum, he said. Figures from January through August show the police patrol zone just north of where he lives, numbered Zone 31, ranks high among those reporting more aggravated assaults, robberies and burglaries.

Smaller beats

Unlike beats, which cover large areas and can be adjusted to accommodate growth, patrol zones are tight, often just a few blocks. They are the jigsaw puzzle pieces police fit together to form beats, and their borders rarely shift.

So the more accurate way to track Columbus crime geographically over time is to go by the patrol zones. To go from 26 to 36, the beats are being changed, shrunk and renamed. Like their shrinking borders, their numbers no longer correspond to what they used to be. Ask for a 12-month crime report by beat at year’s end and it will have to go from Jan. 1 to Sept. 19, and then start over.

Beats were realigned to even out the number of calls patrol officers were getting, to spread the workload.

To do this, police looked at all the calls that came in over 44 months and divided that by 36, the new number of beats.

Leveling the load by beats came to about 14,000 calls each. But some beats had many more calls than others.

“Where the extremes of that were, one small zone, one section, Zone 31 in Beat 8, by itself had 10,332 calls,” said Lt. Bill Rawn, who tracks crime statistics. The zone with the fewest calls was on the tip of the panhandle: “Zone 168, the farthest east, that corner out there, had eight calls,” Rawn said.

That’s not surprising, as calls concentrate where people are, and the panhandle’s not densely populated. “You’ve got a pretty open area out there,” Rawn said.

An eye on schools

Zone 31, the busy one just north of where the Rev. Phillips lives, once was in a patrol Beat 8 with 11 other zones.

Not anymore: “Now you have three zones, 31, 39 and 46, and then you’ve got three schools in there,” Rawn said of Beat 8.

Those schools, each given its own zone number, but embedded within a broader patrol zone, are Carver High (314), Brewer Elementary (312) and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary (309).

“Each school is a zone unto itself, because you want to be able to target that,” Rawn said.

Crime stats from January through August ranked Zone 31 second in what are called Part 1 crimes, the most serious offenses. A somewhat conical area bordered by Cusseta Road to the south and tipped by St. Marys Road to the north, with sloping sides west and east formed by Andrews Road and Brennan Road, Zone 31 had 164 Part 1 crimes, which include assaults, robberies, burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts.

It ranked second to Zone 23, with 171 Part 1 offenses, and was followed by Zone 18, with 157.

Shaped like a triangle, Zone 23 comes to a point where North Lumpkin Road meets Victory Drive. Its west border is a creek behind 30th Avenue. Once called Kendrick Quarters and now known as Southwestview, it is the patrol zone immediately to the east of Phillips’ neighborhood.

Stretching from Cusseta Road to Victory Drive and encompassing Wade Street, where an undercover drug investigator said police get complaints about drug sales, Zone 18 is just a few blocks from Zone 23.

Divided into numbered sets to distinguish patterns of population and use, Columbus’ 343 zones reach a 500 series.

School zones go up to 379. “Four hundred series are your shopping centers,” Rawn says. Like schools, some of those also are embedded in broader patrol zones. “Jump to 451, and those are housing projects. Those run up to 460; 461 starts apartment complexes,” Rawn said. Those are up to 475, and growing.

The five hundred series starts hospitals and assisted-living facilities.

Hearing of higher crime rates in other areas may comfort residents in more secure communities, but police warn that crime knows no geographic boundaries, and follows where folks go with their money. “You can’t have crime without people,” says Maj. Swiney.

The police department hopes to have all its new officers on the street, riding 36 beats 24/7, by the end of this year.

Related stories from Columbus Ledger-Enquirer