Each morning before Lisa Weiland makes it to work, the Columbia police officer assigned to the area has checked the parking garage to ensure that it’s clear.
That’s good to know, Weiland said. It’s not that she doesn’t feel comfortable downtown. It’s just that it’s reassuring to know someone is looking out after her as she heads to Michael’s Cafe & Catering, where she starts at 7 a.m.
“I have a high respect and regard for the CPD,” Weiland said. “I know most of the officers by name.”
Columbia’s Main Street has undergone a revitalization in recent years that has made it a hub for dining, drinking, movies and shopping. Part of that can be attributed to the officers patrolling the area, who keep an eye out for bad behavior while cracking smiles and giving directions to tourists and passerby.
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Among those officers is Lt. Vandell McCary, who has been working at the department for 31 years, and has spent, on and off, 14 years working downtown and on Main Street. In his most recent role, McCary – known as just “L.T.” to many – oversees the community response team that is assigned to patrolling downtown.
Even on his days off, McCary is downtown. On a recent Saturday as McCary grabbed lunch in civilian clothes, at least two Main Street regulars recognized him and couldn’t resist saying hello.
“I think it’s a blessing,” said McCary of the fact that people feel like they can approach him. “... It’s personal for me because this is my home. This is not just a job for me.”
Weiland said it’s a positive thing that the officers have that kind of interaction with the area’s businesses. Toward the lower part of Main Street, many of the city’s homeless still loiter. Sometimes that can create problems.
She recalled an incident involving a homeless man who was trying to steal a cup of coffee. When she confronted him, he poured the coffee over the table. Not only did an officer catch up to the man, he was returned to the store to apologize and pay for the cup of coffee.
“I don’t think downtown would run as well if they didn’t come (around) as often,” Weiland said of the officers. “I think they’re helping Main Street a lot.”
While Weiland had high praises for the police department, Lori Brown didn’t echo Weiland’s remarks. She, too, has a homeless population problem.
They sleep behind her House of Fabrics building and leave all of their belongings in the mornings. Sometimes, they urinate on the building’s back door. And because the community team isn’t roaming the streets in the middle of the night, it can become a problem. A beat cop stops in every once in a while, she said.
Nonetheless, Brown said she’s never felt unsafe downtown.
“I had some ladies who complained about being scared to come downtown, but I never really understood that,” Brown said. “There’s always been people downtown.”
What has changed is how many students also live downtown, Brown said. That’s the best part of Main Street, McCary said; that there are all kinds of people, from students to business people to families just taking a stroll.
“I’m hoping that it will continue,” McCary said. “It’s something that 20 to 25 years ago wasn’t there. Now we’ve got a little bit of variety of everything.”