BY BRIAN JONES
COLUMBUS – Citizens packed the second-story conference room at the Frank Phillips YMCA Tuesday night for a public forum about safety. The meeting was an offshoot of last week’s city council meeting, where Princess Theater owner Bart Lawrence, Columbus Southside Neighborhood Watch Coordinator Julie Parker and city officials agreed to hold a community meeting to discuss recent violence downtown.
Downtown business owners, employees and supporters of the Princess, concerned citizens and city officials engaged in a spirited back-and-forth for an hour and a half. Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, Police Chief Oscar Lewis, Assistant Chief Fred Shelton, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, City Attorney Jeff Turnage, Building Official Ken Wiegel, Main Street Director Barbara Bigelow and Councilmen Marty Turner and Stephen Jones were all in attendance. [It was very crowded – the room was full and people were standing in the hall outside – so if I missed anyone in that roll call I apologize. – Ed.]
“If you were at the city council meeting last week or read any of the reports about that you know that we had a good discussion about some of the gun activity in the Southside area,” Parker said. “But more-so than that it was how we could collaborate as residents and neighbors with the merchants to make sure our residents are safe.”
Smith summarized the city’s response to date.
“The past weekend if you were uptown you saw we had two patrolmen on foot patrol,” Smith said. “We’ll be doing that for the remainder of this year. They’ll be working the central business district – that entails the area from the Columbus Light and Water Department on Fifth Street all the way to Franklin, and from Sixth Street and Main to the welcome center. These officers will either be from the command staff or some reserve officers. We might have some officers that work part-time for the city.
“I talked with the CLW and we have installed some lights there on the utility pole at Fifth and Third,” he said. “You have three 400-watts on that corner, and then across the street at the Princess you have three 400-watts. The plan is that hopefully in the next month or month and a half to install two 400-watts and a thousand-watt on each utility pole all the way through the central business district. That will be 1,800 watts. The only problem with it is the people in the apartments might complain that it’s too much light
“Also our IT person is working with ADT and Knight Hawk security, and the plan is to install some surveillance cameras that will run from the CLW to Main,” Smith said. “We are not here to shut no one business down. I hope that tonight we can come to some reasonable dialogue, and it’s going to take all of us working together. I know I’ve received some emails and some calls asking why we’re trying to close this gentleman down, and it wasn’t the first incident. We have information here that we can back up. There have been numerous incidents there. We’re not trying to shut a person down over a first incident.”
Qua Austin said that she was concerned about Columbus overall.
“This is going outside what is happening downtown,” she said. “We are happy to have Mr. Lawrence and the Princess in our community. It’s a great place to hang out. It’s a great place to generate business. It seems to be a great gathering place. Thank you for the plan to control the numbers. But with that said, I am concerned about everybody across the town from the north side to the south side, from the west side to the east side. We love everybody and we all try to get along, but who wants to drive down the street and there are bullets going everywhere. That has nothing to do with Mr. Lawrence and his business.
“Columbus needs to be safe,” she said. “Whether or not it’s about ordinances or curtailing drug traffic…this room wouldn’t have anybody in it, we would not draw this kind of crowd, if people weren’t concerned about Columbus. We got to have something other than a band-aid. Please include the whole city, and come up with a total plan for the City of Columbus, and not just something until the end of the year.”
“The reason why I put the emphasis on uptown is because that’s why most people are here,” Smith said. “We are all concerned about crime within the city of Columbus. It’s all over the city. We are working on a game plan, but when incidents of this magnitude occur, and it’s a continuation, we have to step in to that particular incident.”
“There’s a 12-week training academy. Then the application process itself…that’s been shortened, but it’s still a process with voice-stress tests, lie detector tests and different things like that that we go through before we even recommend hiring. With certified officers it’s shorter, but let’s face it. In this day and time it’s not the most glamorous career field. People aren’t flocking to it. We have some good applicants, but we have to go through the process with those. It will take some time but we will get to where we need to be.
“It’s not just an effort in the police department, it’s a community effort,” Lewis said. “If you see things going on, call us. We’ve got to work together. As far as numbers, if we’ve got 488 people in any venue, we’re outnumbered. Look at yesterday, the (pursuit and shooting) that officers were involved in. We just don’t know what we’re getting into. We are doing everything possible to keep you safe, but we’re the crazy ones that run to something like that.”
Lewis was asked about police staffing now.
“We are trying to get to 67 officers,” Lewis said. “When we get to that point the council has also approved hiring 10 more, which will bring us to 77 officers total strength. Right now we just hired eight officers, so we’re up to 54, but we’ve got two that left. Capt. Donnie Elkin retired, and we’ve got one who resigned to take a job with the sheriff’s department. That is 52 officers. We have seven trainees that are not officers yet.”
Lewis said the department is also looking at four certified officers who may be hired.
Lewis was asked about staffing on each shift.
“I try not to get into numbers, because it’s a safety concern,” he said. “We try to staff eight per shift at night and seven in the day. We could use more, and that’s what we’re looking towards. We have two guys in unmarked cars who drive around checking hotspots. Then we have the drug task force with the county, and we have two guys assigned to that and (the sheriff’s department) has four. (The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics) and the (federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) people help us out. There’s a lot going on. We’re not sitting back waiting on divine intervention.”
Lewis was asked how to recruit more veteran officers.
“The thing about it is that you have to balance everything that’s going on,” he said. “You don’t want to alienate the officers who are here by bringing people outside inside and giving them rank. It’s a fine balance. There are several dynamics that you have to look at in this whole process. I just don’t think in this day and time that people are getting into law enforcement because of what you are seeing across the nation.”
Smith said the recent pay raise and the new vehicles have helped, too.
“We increased their salaries from about $31,000 to about $34,986 for a beginning patrolman,” Smith said. “We also purchased extra vehicles so they could have take-home cars. Whether you know it or not, the insurance package we offer is one of the better ones around.
As far as cities our size, or even Tupelo, our starting salaries are higher. After an officer has been with us one year the salary automatically increases to $37,000. We had some officers who saw $5,000 raises overnight.”
“I want to say this,” interjected Turner. Someone in the audience asked him who he was, and he responded, “I’m Marty Turner. The city councilman. Ward 4. Hey, y’all. Hey, everybody. Okay, now, me and my girl went downtown and we were down there for about three hours. I told Assistant Chief Shelton – he was Captain Shelton then – that I was downtown for three hours and we need to increase, we need to increase the law presence there. We need more increased presence of the law enforcement. We need that.”
“I have a question,” a member of the audience said. “I don’t mean to cut you off. Is there a plan in place for more safety precautions for the area of Seventh Avenue North. Anyone who knows that area, when you’re driving down that road, day or night, they will hardly move out of the road for you to drive and get by.”
“With (O-Kay Foods) and the shooting that they had there last week, I know that’s not the only place your’e talking about, but we have increased patrols in those area,” Lewis said. “Anytime you see something, give 911 a call. If it’s important to you, it’s important to us. There are a lot of times we can’t be as proactive as we want to be because officers are drawing us all over the city. But if it’s a concern to you, we will definitely come by and check it out. We want to do bike patrols and foot patrols, but right now I’ve got to prioritize what we do have”
“I want to tell you about something that I have done,” interjected Turner.
“This is a meeting for citizen input, and we have questions,” someone in the crowd said.
“I’m trying to help out,” Turner said.
“We want to be mindful of your resources,” said one citizen, “but given a suspicious, non-emergency situation, do we call 911?”
“That’s the only avenue that we have,” Lewis said. “The way I look at it, if we can get out there and identify the small things, somebody maybe casing a house out, then we can get a tag number and maybe talk to that person. That’s going to keep things from snowballing into something worse. If you see something, call us right away. We’ll get out there and check it out and see what’s going on.”
Lewis was asked what the timeline was for filling out the remaining officers positions.
“We are at 52 officers with the seven new ones,” Lewis said. “With the career days and the push to recruit, to get to 67 it may be the end of this year sometime. Officers have to get to the academy to get trained up.”
“We are actively recruiting,” Shelton said. “We have officers going to two job fairs next month. We have had two career days. The first career day we had about 45 applicants and this past Saturday we had 24. We’re trying to build up a pool of applicants to pull from.
“If we keep hitting it hard like we’re doing and getting your support like you’re giving us, we’ll get there, but I can’t say when,” Shelton said.
One citizen complained about loitering downtown and suggested loiterers be arrested.
“The city can’t prevent loitering on public property,” Turnage said. “The US Supreme Court said that violates freedom of association. There has to be a crime other than just standing around.”
They could be arrested for blocking traffic, Turnage said, but “not for just hanging around.”
Developer Chris Chain, who is renovating property across the street from the Princess, complained about littering downtown.
“I looked at all the property around the Princess last Sunday and there’s hundreds of broken bottles of Budweiser,” Chain said. “I guess Budweiser is the choice beer. It’s everywhere. Not only is there loitering but there’s drinking out in the open as well, and maybe coming out of the facility in the back, I have no idea. But there is trash all over. Some of it gets picked up. [“What is your question?” somebody called. – Ed.] I guess my question is there are several laws being broken on the city streets. There’s littering. There’s the loitering issue, some of it is on private property. But what do you do when you have 488 people outside the facility?”
“With the changes being put into place after last week, I’m hoping to see a dramatic decrease,” Lewis said. “The 163 number is manageable. [The capacity of the front portion of the Princess is around 160. – Ed.] The main thing is communicating with business owners and cleaning up properties once constituents leave. No one wants to show up to see that on their property.”
Lawrence’s attorneys, Mark Jackson and Shane Tompkins, responded.
“There were not 488 people outside,” Chain said. “We have already agreed to close that part. The overflow and the beer bottles that you’re seeing…there have been no reports that people are leaving the Princess with alcohol. People are congregating on private property.”
“Mr. Lawrence has the liability there because his venue is bringing people downtown,” Chain said. “I’ve got property across the street, and I’ve talked to all the property owners there. This has got to stop. This is not the first incident there. The city’s got to step it up, and Mr. Lawrence has to step it up. If people are just going to hang out outside, what do we do?”
A former Princess employee spoke. [He said his name, but all I caught was “Tyler.” – Ed.] He addressed Turner and rest of the city council.
“You and the rest of your colleagues should have done something the first time this happened,” he said. “You as a citizen and a publicly elected official you have more power and ability than anyone in this room. You can go to the mayor and your colleagues. Us, as citizens, we have to go to a city council meeting. At last week’s council meeting I was disturbed by your lack of knowledge of the problems at hand and the businesses within your ward. You weren’t even aware that the Princess was in your ward. You had to be reminded of it.”
“It is not in my ward,” Turner responded. Several people in the audience said, “yes, it is,” and Turner repeated that it was not.
“You go up to Fifth Street,” somebody called out.
“Half of Fifth Street is yours, and half is mine,” said Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones. “The Princess is in his, the other side is mine.”
There was a huge outburst of people talking and shouting back and forth, but when the noise died down Turner responded.
“When the district got changed, I don’t know all my ward lines yet,” Turner said. [The current ward lines were drawn in 2014. – Ed.] “I’m telling the truth, I’m telling the truth.”
“Well, that’s a problem,” somebody called, drawing scattered applause.
“I don’t have no control over that,” Turner said.
“You should know your ward lines,” somebody called.
“When I first ran my ward lines were very different,” Turner said. He then tried to tell a story about going to the Princess before there was shooting to get his nephew out of there, which segued into him assuring the crowd how concerned he was. [His rambling comments were very hard to follow, so I’m just summarizing them here. – Ed.] “I’m very concerned, but it takes everybody to listen. That’s what I’m saying to you.”
Turner continued to speak, and Smith did his best to rein him in so others could talk.
“Let’s get back to the main issue,” Smith said.
“A lot of these issues we tried to touch on last Tuesday,” Jackson said. “My client has cut off a big portion of his business. The closure affects 60 percent of his gross revenue, and that’s not an easy pill to swallow. He did that because he has to do his part, and this is the first step in doing that. Once the theater was opened, that’s when more calls in the area started happening. Those aren’t calls inside the business, those are calls in the area. Mr. Lawrence is not denying that people are drawn there, but they are not coming inside the business. They’re moving down the street and congregating on other properties. He doesn’t want those people loitering outside his business, either. It’s not good for his business. They are not buying beer, they are not buying food. As a matter of fact this shooting that has been characterized as taking place at the Princess took place two properties over.
“His responsibilities can’t go down as far as chasing people off the street corner or off of someone else’s property,” Jackson said. “He wants to address those issues, and to hear from business and property owners about what would be best for the area This is not a Bart Lawrence problem, it’s a problem in the entire community. When the shooting happens down the street, and the fingers are pointed at the Princess, our response is that we have to play our part but everybody else has to play their part, too, and be able to help resolve those issues.”
The closing hours have been scaled back from 1:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., he said.
“We cut back by 60 percent the number of people who are congregating there,” Jackson said. “We have cut back the operating hours and we want to see how that it affecting the crowd. Our proposal is to scale back the number of people and the hours, and then over time see how it looks and how things are progressing. Let’s open communications better than they have been and see how it goes. If we don’t have the calls and the loitering and the litter then we can come back and talk to the chief and the mayor and the council and the people in the area and see about pushing that back eventually. Let’s see how it works at 11 o’clock, and just gradually move back and see how it affects the community over time. It’s not just let’s shut this thing down at 8 o’clock and hope it works out.”
Chain asked that a probationary period be put in to the agreement with the city.
“We want to further talk to city and the police about stair-stepping,” Tompkins said. “We think the problems were created by the overflow. It was just too much for them to handle. When you open up the theater you added those additional people, and you can’t control it once it gets out on that sidewalk. All we are saying is we’ll close the theater and by doing that we get crowd control, which is what everybody wants. Then we look at it in two weeks, a month, six weeks, eight weeks. We would like to stair-step the time back to 10:30, 11, 11:30, 12, 12:30, 1. We’d just like to get the front, the 163 people, back to normal business hours.”
“As far as the number that are there, if you’re having people standing on the sidewalk and you’re letting one in and one out to control numbers, I don’t agree with that,” Lewis said. “If you’re at capacity they need to clear the sidewalk and be gone. That’s part of the problem. They are holding them in line and agreeing to let them come in when somebody else comes out. Also I don’t think their responsibility stops at their building. Even though you don’t have arrest powers, you can have two security officers just watching and making sure things are being safe. Your responsibility just doesn’t stop at your building. You can get on the phone and call us and let us know what you see going on.”
“We are open to any options as long as it doesn’t expose our client to any liability or incur any crazy expense,” Tompkins said. “If security walks out on the sidewalk and sees something they can’t do anything without being exposed to come kind of liability.”
“We’re not asking them to,” Lewis said. “We’re asking them to pick up the phone and call the police if they see anything happening.”
“I think we have to be careful that we don’t demonize businesses,” said one citizen. “You put alcohol and human nature together and you’re going to have problems. This is a community problem. This isn’t just the Princess. This is our problem. The police department doesn’t get to act, they have to react. If somebody creates a problem, they have to try and fix it. (The police) is not the problem. The chief admits that we are shorthanded and they are doing the best they can. If you had a hundred policemen downtown, if somebody’s got a gun and they want to shoot somebody, they’re going to shoot. Let’s stop demonizing the business owner. One of our guys at the post office downtown was walking to the bank with a bank bag and got robbed at gunpoint, in broad daylight, in front of the old police department. Nobody said let’s shut down the post office.” [Applause. – Ed.]
“The number of incidents from year to year has been fairly consistent,” said one audience member. “The problem was at the HeidiHo, and then it moved. It moved to the Fairgrounds. Now they’re at the Princess. Shutting down the business or limiting the business…I don’t really think it’s the business causing the problem. Limiting the business is not solving the problem. The number of incidents have not changed all that much. All they’re doing is migrating that problem around.”
Lawrence spoke at the very end.
“Everybody’s concern is my concern,” Lawrence said. “One of the biggest problem we’ve had in our community is that we’re not talking to each other. We are seeing a problem and we’re not talking to each other. Talk to your neighbors and the people in your community about the problems that you have and we will not be meeting like this. Maybe we’ll be in a room like this for something good.”
[There was much, much more said at this meeting than I had time to include here. – Ed.]