Bolton: Columbia must address crime equally across the city

Associate EditorNovember 3, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

DURING AN Oct. 8 visit with our editorial board, Columbia City Council candidate Bruce Trezevant spoke passionately as he recounted how he and his mother were held at gunpoint by a drug dealer.

That passion didn’t subside as he shared other such stories, including one involving a break-in at his mother’s home. While crime is a problem across the city, he said, it’s of particular concern in District 1, which includes north Columbia, an area that will struggle to develop if it’s not safe.

Mr. Trezevant, who is attempting to unseat Councilman Sam Davis in Tuesday’s election, said it’s important for the city to stabilize its police department and be more proactive in fighting crime. He said officers need to be well-trained in investigating crimes and being more responsive to citizens. A former law enforcement officer, Mr. Trezevant said the next police chief must be given the authority to run his department without interference so that he can address those and other concerns.

Columbia must focus on becoming safe citywide, not in particular areas, he said, before questioning why more emphasis is placed on incidents in Five Points than a deadly shooting in north Columbia.

Just minutes later, Todd Walter, who is running against Councilwoman Leona Plaugh in District 4, sat in the same seat Mr. Trezevant had sat in, and he too talked about addressing public safety along with other basic city services. Mr. Walter, who lives in Woodcreek Farms, said it’s imperative that the city hire a chief and get the police department in order. But he didn’t talk about safety and security or getting kids off the street or the need to clean up crime in his district, as Mr. Trezevant had. Instead, he spoke of the need to improve the look of neighborhoods and spruce up city parks.

The stark difference in how the two men discussed the police department as well as their communities’ needs was striking. One comes from a less-affluent, largely African-American side of town where crime is ever-present while the other lives in a majority-white, upscale neighborhood that doesn’t experience the same level of villainy.

Obviously, the ideal would be for everyone to be blessed enough to live in peaceful neighborhoods so they can enjoy a higher quality of life. But the sad reality is that some areas of Columbia have been battling with crime for years, despite reports of violent incidents being down.

Which brings me to the Five Points crime problem and how it is being addressed relative to those areas with long and troubled histories.

No matter how much Columbia police and city officials try to frame it differently, their high-profile efforts to address crime in Five Points are going to be viewed as giving special attention to a largely white, revenue-generating, politically savvy sector of the city.

What would you think if you lived in a poorer, less-connected neighborhood that has endured crime and violence for many years and has never gotten the kind of attention Five Points is getting?

Don’t get me wrong. When crime flares up in an area like it has in Five Points, it makes sense for police to saturate it, calm things down and sustain that peace. But that must happen across the city.

Five Points has gotten special attention — from the media, police and elected officials. Name a crime-plagued area that has prompted more press conferences, special called meetings and demands for action.

It’s critical to protect business interests and to keep college students and others who frequent the restaurants and bars safe in the urban village. But isn’t that true about folks living in neighborhoods as well?

I had a discussion with Five Points Association president Tim Smith recently during which he said merchants have been working with the city and others in search of solutions. The main thing they want the police to focus on now are gangs, he said.

And that’s what the city intends to do.

But gang activity isn’t new in Columbia. Gangs were tearing apart neighborhoods long before concerns surfaced that they might be in Five Points. Just like crime and violence have been prevalent in other areas before the problems in Five Points got as bad as they have.

As Columbia’s leaders continue to wrestle with crime, they’re going to be challenged to ensure that all areas of the city are treated equally when it comes to safety and security. Otherwise — purposefully or not — they will be pitting parts of the city against one another.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and others are looking for ways to reach out across the city to address crime, improve the lives of youngsters to steer them away from trouble and to neutralize gangs.

But let’s be real. A lot of what’s driving the way the city is dealing with crime right now is that Five Points leaders and others with an interest in that area have declared enough is enough.

Chances are Bruce Trezevant, whose Project Unity USA has worked hard to bring attention to crime in north Columbia, would tell you that folks in his community have made that same declaration more than once. But the response has been limited, at best.

Why is that?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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