Robert Benton told community members and leaders Monday night at the Trotter Convention Center that he was “disheartened” by the crime at his business area, Military Hardware on Military Road.
There have been five felony cases near his store in the past 15 months, including a “pretty big shooting” outside the window while he and his wife, Mary Ann Benton, were in the store.
Still, he believes the community can solve Columbus’ growing crime problem if citizens work together.
“We need to think about it and think about it together,” he said. “It’s a community effort. As a new person in town… I don’t know much about Columbus other than that there are some great people in this city and I am willing to partner with them to resolve some of these issues.
Benton was among dozens of citizens who met with community leaders for a town hall hosted by the Crime Prevention Task Force, which Mayor Robert Smith and Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks formed earlier this year. In the past two weeks, city police responded to three shootings resulting in injuries across the city, the most recent on 16th Street North on May 11.
On Monday, questions revolved around law enforcement operations, suggestions for youth programs and calls for better cooperation between the city and the county.
Participants made suggestions ranging from re-establishing anti-drug programs and mentoring programs in schools to appealing to the county to help fund projects in the city. Others said they didn’t necessarily have their own solutions, but were happy to help implement the ones the working group is already planning.
The working group is divided into five sub-committees focused on strengthening law enforcement, education, youth and recreation, community revitalization and community perception, each of them planning to put together a set of recommended solutions to present to city council next month. Prior to that, however, the task force hosted the meeting specifically to hear ideas from citizens on how to tackle each of these issues, said Brooks, who chairs the task force.
“It’s not just a matter of law enforcement,” Brooks said. “… It’s the full range of all these pieces that fit together. We are looking to make our community a better place. ”
Contribution of the police
The task force so far has focused on organizing activities and events to give young people something to do, which Sheriff Eddie Hawkins focused on at the start of the meeting, when the police took the floor before hearing comments from the public.
Hawkins said his department can arrest suspects and incarcerate people who commit crimes, but it won’t stop crime if people, especially teenagers, don’t have a lot of opportunities to stay out of trouble.
“We have to start doing something for kids at a young age to get them involved in something, other than being here on the streets engaging in criminal activity,” Hawkins said. “Get them involved in sports or other projects, and have someone to mentor these kids, take them off the streets and give them something to do. You keep them busy, they are too tired to commit crimes.
He and District Attorney Scott Colom also pointed out that many of those arrested for the region’s most violent crimes had all been arrested before. Part of the problem with prosecutions, Colom said, is the reluctance of witnesses to come forward. The community has created a “culture of gun violence” that encourages people to deal with conflicts themselves rather than going to law enforcement.
He spoke of a murder trial he continued last week in which a Columbus man was convicted of second degree murder for shooting another man who was trying to fight him. Colom said that in this case, eyewitnesses were extremely reluctant to testify.
Colom even suggested that law enforcement create a map of residents with doorbell cameras or surveillance cameras on their property so that the police can call on them for help if there is a crime in their area. The city of Columbus has already purchased 12 surveillance cameras to place in the city.
“Let’s get as much evidence as possible, because the more evidence we have, the more weight we have to condemn these cases,” he said.
Questions and suggestions
Questions for officials ranged from whether the city has implemented a juvenile curfew – which has become a topic of debate in Starkville where crime is also on the rise – to whether there are enough police officers patrolling the city. and whether they receive assistance from the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. .
The juvenile curfew is 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday through Thursday and midnight to 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday, Police Chief Fred Shelton said, though he added the city was in revising the prescription in case it needs to change.
As for the patrol, he said, the ministry has already announced that it will increase night patrols from three to five officers. Hawkins added that while the LCSO primarily leaves the Columbus Police Department with jurisdiction within the city limits, sheriff’s deputies also have jurisdiction and conduct their own drug investigations and assist the DPC when called upon.
Brooks also suggested that city officials might consider using federal funds from the American Relief Bill – the county is expected to receive $ 11.3 million, while the city is expected to receive around $ 5 million – to provide additional compensation to first responders.
DPC reserve officer James Richardson suggested schools DARE program, which teaches children about the dangers of drugs and violence, back to school.
“What the ORS (school resource officers) were designed to do, they don’t do anymore,” said Richardson, who is a retired school resources officer. “One of those things that I did myself as a school resource manager… I was assigned to every elementary school and I went myself and I probably talked about how we run the school. peer pressure, we dealt with conflict resolution, we took care of everything. these things. And that was really important because we focused on the elementary school kids.
He said schools should focus as much on the social education of children as on their academic education.
One of the last meeting participants to speak, Barry Hines, called for county supervisors to financially assist the city in implementing some of the proposed solutions.
“I notice that we are talking about a lot of resources, mainly money,” he said. “… The citizens of Columbus make up about 45 percent of the county’s population, and each supervisor has voters in parts of the city. Now we have a big influx of (tax revenue) into the county with all this industry coming up. I have a feeling Columbus sees nothing of the county. I know there are state laws, but I would like to see our … county supervisors start discussing with (state lawmakers) ways in which the county can actually begin to deal with approximately 100% of the citizens … not just a part.