“My city works when ... I feel safe”

MAKING COLUMBIA WORK: Residents focus on public safety, police department in city elections

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 12, 2013 

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    ABOUT THIS SERIES. The first of three election-themed installments of our MAKING COLUMBIA WORK series. Today: Residents talk about safety

— For residents in Columbia’s Belvedere community, the answer to reducing crime in their neighborhood is simple.

They want the city to stop approving permits in their area for stores that sell beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes and junk food at all hours. Then, put a few more cops on the streets to watch parks, school yards and commercial areas where people loiter, said Diane Wiley, president of the Belvedere Community Organization.

“We can’t get our neighborhood back on track because of those liquor stores,” Wiley said. “It’s not happening in Shandon. It’s not happening in Five Points. It’s not happening around USC. Why are we getting all the ugly stuff?”

In a local election, no topic receives more attention from candidates than public safety. No one knows that better than Bob Coble, who served as Columbia’s mayor for 20 years and said it was the main issue in all five races he won.

“I suspect it will be the main issue in every local race in America,” Coble said. “If you think about it, nothing is more important than safety, and it’s a primary function of city government. It’s a natural issue.”

And whether people think they are safe is just as important as whether they actually are.

The same goes for the 2013 Columbia city election, which will be held Nov. 5. And there are plenty of reasons the issue deserves attention:

• The police department has had two permanent chiefs since the 2010 mayor’s race. It now is being run by an interim chief, who is under investigation after one of his former captains made accusations of corruption.

• Meddling by city officials continues to cause problems at the police department. Most recently, the city manager was criticized for showing up at the scene when officers arrested the S.C. NAACP president. That led Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is running for re-election, to propose a policy that bans politicians and city administrators from crime scenes. The proposal failed.

• Debate over how to provide services to the city’s homeless population reached a boiling point over the summer as City Council made plans to open a more comprehensive downtown shelter. Many residents and business owners complain that homeless people loitering and asking for money are a nuisance and safety threat.

• Random gunfire has plagued Five Points, the city’s popular nightlife area, as police and party-goers have disagreed over how to make the area safer.

Neighborhood councils have asked for more and more surveillance cameras to be installed on their streets as they become more concerned about break-ins and other crimes.

• Suspects in multiple high-profile shooting deaths were on bond for other violent crimes when they allegedly killed someone. Those cases have led to outrage over how judges, including those hired by City Council, set bonds for criminal suspects.

Despite the police turmoil and other headline-grabbing public safety issues, the city’s crime rate has been dropping throughout 2013.

For the first three quarters of 2013, violent crime dropped 29 percent when compared to the same period of 2012.

But numbers are meaningless if people don’t feel safe.

“The feeling of being safe is important,” Coble said. “The actual crime rate will take a back seat to the perception of feeling safe.”

FIVE POINTS, HOMELESS

No neighborhood knows that more than Five Points, which has been one of the hottest flash points when it comes to Columbia crime.

The area near the University of South Carolina known for its vibrant nightlife, has experienced a series of assaults and shootings. That has upset business owners and their customers, who also complained about a police focus on underage drinking rather than gangs and guns.

Although the police department has reported that violent crime in Five Points has mirrored the drop across the city, some residents still worry about their safety if they go to Five Points at night.

Alan Smith, 26, who lives in the northwest tip of Columbia near Irmo, said he worries about getting mugged when he goes there.

“The most unsafe I’ve ever felt in Columbia is in Five Points,” he said. “It’s an uneasy feeling when I’m walking to the car at night, especially if I’m not with a group of people. And I would never let a girl walk alone there. No way.”

Rachel Duffie, 22, who lives in the Granby area, also worries about her safety in Five Points but for a different reason. She has heard too many stories about women being drugged in bars and then assaulted by the men who slipped those drugs into their drinks.

“It’s not worth it to me,” Duffie said. “I feel like it’s a big risk to go there.”

Smith and Duffie said they have started going to nightclubs in the Vista.

Both work downtown and see homeless people almost daily. Neither said the homeless people scared them.

“They don’t bother me, but sometimes they try to talk to me like, ‘Hey, baby,’” Duffie said. “That makes me kind of uncomfortable.”

Shootings and assaults and uproar over how to help homeless people stoke community outrage, but the anger fades. When it comes to the nitty gritty of public safety, people are most interested in their own backyards.

Take David Porter, a 48-year-old who lives on Schoolhouse Road across from Pinehurst Park, near the Benedict College football stadium.

When asked what would make his neighborhood feel more safe, Porter said he would like to see more police at the park, a blinking traffic light over a nearby four-way stop and then pointed to a vacant lot across the street on Pinehurst Road.

“They need to cut the grass over there,” Porter said. “People go back in there all the time. You can’t see what they are doing.”

For Eau Claire Community Council president Christie Savage, a feeling of safety comes from “having a working relationship between the community and the police department.”

Savage had high-praise for the police department’s north region commander and his officers. They attend community meetings and respond to calls from residents, she said.

In Columbia, police and public officials are expected to be accessible to residents, especially neighborhood leaders. It’s one more reason public safety is such a hot topic in local elections – keeping neighborhood leaders happy bodes well for re-election.

Wiley, the Belvedere community president, is the typical resident that elected officials in Columbia must please.

She does not miss neighborhood meetings, government open houses and political forums. She has phone numbers for the mayor, the police chief and the school board chairman, and she is not shy about calling.

Most recently, Wiley and her neighbors have been rattling City Hall’s doors about the convenience stores. Earlier this year, the city took the unprecedented step of hiring a lawyer on behalf of the neighborhood to fight the city’s own zoning board over the issue.

A couple of weeks ago, she and other neighbors noticed a group of young people had set up barbecue grills and were throwing a weekend party on the former Virginia Pack Elementary School property. Cars were parked everywhere. Pretty soon, the police chief, the school board chairman and other officials were on the scene. The party ended.

“The neighbors have to help the police,” she said. “I call everybody. I’m not going to be scared. Criminals are not going to take over my neighborhood.”

What the candidates say about safety in Columbia

Steve Benjamin: The mayor made public safety a priority in his first campaign and has continued the theme as he seeks re-election. He is telling voters the Columbia Police Department is fully staffed and funded for the first time in many years, that violent crime rates have dropped and that he has made efforts to add security cameras in high crime areas. He also points to a panel on violent crime/bond reform that he assembled over the summer.

Moe Baddourah: City Councilman Baddourah says his priority is stabilizing the Columbia Police Department. He would begin by hiring a police chief, a position that has been vacant since April. Once a chief is hired, council should get out of his way and let him or her lead the department, he says.

Larry Sypolt: A former Richland County sheriff’s deputy and FBI agent, Sypolt wants to merge the police department and sheriff’s department. His plan would retain a police chief, but that person would report to the sheriff, who is elected countywide. He also said the plan would increase response times and improve police coverage in the city.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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