Which is more dangerous: The Vista or Five Points?

It depends on who you ask and which numbers they are citing. But leaders in both areas say finger-pointing is not the answer to fighting crime.

nophillips@thestate.comFebruary 1, 2014 

Vista and Five Points crime by the numbers

Numbers tell stories.

In the case of crime statistics for Five Points and the Vista, the city’s most popular entertainment districts, the numbers tell several stories.

•  Violent crime steadily decreased in Five Points between 2010 and 2013.

•  Violent crime rose slightly in the Vista during the same time period.

•  The Vista has a high number of auto break-ins. As a result, the area has a higher number of property crimes.

•  On a four-year average, Five Points had a higher overall crime rate.

The information is from a four-year crime analysis provided by the Columbia Police Department at the request of The State newspaper.

The State requested the analysis after continuing chatter among some Five Points merchants that media outlets unfairly report and blow out of proportion crime in their district. In fact, one merchant went so far as to create signs to challenge the news media over its coverage. His yellow signs, asking about a “news blackout” in other areas, are posted in several Five Points businesses.

Jeff Helmsley the owner of the Devine Street bar and restaurant Goatfeathers, said the attention on Five Points violence is destroying his business. He said working professionals, who traditionally have made up his clientele, no longer come to Five Points to eat and drink because of the crime reports.

“All I wanted was a level playing field,” Helsey said. “The Vista seems to be getting a free pass. I’m calling out the media.”

Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago said his department uses statistics to decide where to focus resources. But it would be unfair to look at the numbers and try to determine that one area was more safe than another, he said. That’s because the two districts, while both entertainment areas, have their own unique qualities, such as geographic size, proximity to residential areas and the number of businesses.

“Numbers are only a gauge for us,” Santiago said.

Santiago said he understands why some Five Points merchants feel picked on.

But he also said he understands whey certain crimes generate more headlines. He used two 2013 shootings as examples of crimes that always are going to receive press coverage.

In February, a teenager fired at a police officer who was arresting another person outside a Harden Street bar in Five Points. In October, 18-year-old USC freshman Martha Childress was paralyzed by what police have said was a stray bullet while waiting for a taxi near the fountain at Harden and Greene streets.

Violent crime has been the attention-getter in Five Points since 2010 when the first of a series of incidents involving gunfire were reported in Five Points. In the police department’s analysis, homicide, sexual assaults, robberies and aggravated assaults are counted as violent crimes.

In 2010, 67 violent crimes were reported in Five Points – the high-point in the analysis. Last year, 21 violent crimes were reported. Because of the gunfire, police began a lengthy, concentrated presence in Five Points and City Council enacted a daily, 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for those under 17 in 2011.

As for the Vista, its violent crime numbers have risen, but only slightly. Thirty four violent crimes were reported in the area in 2013, compared to 27 in 2010.

Another reason Five Points crime gets attention is because that area is the preferred party destination for students from USC, Benedict College and Allen University, Santiago said.

“Anything that happens down there, we’re talking about the youth in our community,” he said. “That is why there is sensitivity to it.”

The area also is one of the city’s oldest, most well-known areas.

“I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t heard of Five Points,” he said.

The police department does not short-change patrols in one area at the expense of the other, Santiago said. That goes for all areas of the city, he said. He and his command staff decide how many officers are needed in the entertainment districts based on all sorts of factors, including recent incidents, sports seasons and the weather.

When officers noticed a recent rash of car break-ins on the 700 block of Gervais Street in the Vista, the police department took steps to curb it. Those measures included controlling access to a large parking lot and talking to merchants, Santiago said.

Five Points patrons often walk to where they’re going. Vista patrons are more likely to drive, which in part explains why auto break-ins are a problem in the Vista, which has multiple parking garages and large parking lots. In 2013, 135 of the area’s 263 property crimes were car break-ins. And 40 motor vehicle thefts were reported in 2013.

The leaders of merchant associations that represent each area said they do not find any value in pointing fingers at each other.

Amy Beth Franks, executive director of the Five Points Association, said the crime happening in Five Points is part of a larger problem that has been affecting the entire city. Helsey’s signs were posted independent of the association, she

“Statistics aside, Columbia has a crime problem that the Five Points Association would like to see addressed on a city level, instead of focusing solely on individual hospitality districts – with an all hands-on-deck solution,” she said.

Sarah Lewis, executive director of the Vista Guild, said her association is not trying to hide statistics or ask for favoritism. She noted that a December 2012 shooting on Lincoln Street received plenty of media coverage.

The area has its problems, and her association works with the Columbia Police Department to address them, she said.

“If the Vista struggles, it doesn’t mean Five Points is going to do well,” Lewis said.

“We want to see everyone be successful,” she said. “I can understand if some Five Points business owners are frustrated by what is happening, but pointing to other districts does not solve the problem.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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