A ranking we don't want to top

If Columbus does indeed retain something of a "Mayberry outlook," as a Columbus police officer described it, that’s not completely a bad thing. Our unique combination of big-town amenities and small-town customs, values and manners is one of the things that makes this community appealing.

Unfortunately, it can also make it appealing to thieves — especially, it seems, to vehicle thieves. Statistics released just last week show Columbus with the worst vehicle theft rate in the state — not just ahead of comparable cities like Macon and Savannah, but even ahead of the megalith of Atlanta. That’s not the kind of statistical category where anybody wants to finish first.

And one of the problems, says Columbus Police Sgt. Kenneth Hudson, is "that small-town mentality" in a city that hasn’t really been a small town for a long time.

"Some people think you can pull up to a gas station and leave your car running," Hudson said, "but you really can’t. The days of going to bed and leaving your door unlocked are no longer there."

The reality of crime — property crime and violent crime — is a sad component of growth, but an undeniable one. Thieves prey on the innocent and on the careless; vehicles, which are by their very nature portable, are a tempting and ready target. And under the right circumstances, Hudson said, a car or motorcycle owner is as vulnerable in any part of town as in any other; all a thief needs is the right opportunity.

Although the sergeant understandably didn’t dwell on it, the police personnel shortage in Columbus can’t be ignored: "We just don’t have the manpower to really investigate all the cases," Hudson said. As has been noted before, a crisis in Public Safety numbers inevitably becomes a crisis in public safety. It’s fortunate that in this case the problem is showing up in property crime rather than in violent crime, but that’s not much comfort.

In any case, it is up to vehicle owners to exercise some obvious commonsense precautions, like locking cars and installing alarms and other security measures in cars that aren’t already equipped with them; such measures would make sense even if we weren’t topping the charts in this particular category of felony.

Hudson said Columbus Police are developing a plan for dealing with the vehicle theft problem. He doesn’t want to tip off the would-be thieves to what it is, but it’s safe to say few if any honest citizens would mind seeing a crook or two get stung.

Meanwhile, maybe we can cultivate some big-city shrewdness without sacrificing our small town ways. It never pays to be careless, even in Mayberry.