BY STEVE ROGERS
The Columbus Packet
A series of ongoing community public safety forums have put the spotlight on the Columbus Police Department in general and specifically on Police Chief Oscar Lewis
Publicly and privately, some have questioned Lewis, putting the blame for everything from crime and community fears to incessant turnover squarely on his back.
I won’t hypothesize about his future, but I can say he deserves at least a moment of sainthood for his handling recently of a situation that would have driven most people bonkers.
When Lewis arrived for work on the morning of Feb. 13, he was greeted by would-be Republican mayoral candidate Garthia Halbert, who apparently had walked to the police station from a Highway 45 motel. During a brief conversation, Lewis told her he had a meeting but would meet with her shortly. She went to Mayor Robert Smith’s office across the parking lot to wait.
Sometime later, Lewis enters the mayor’s reception area. How do I know? Because I and The Packet obtained the video via a Freedom of Information request. It is now available on our website. Yes, leading by example, the chief not only was wearing, but also was operating, his police body camera.
Halbert’s mental health issues have been widely publicized in The Packet in the last two weeks. His patience, calmness and respect dealing with a person who obviously was having what my mother used to call a “tetched (that’s Southern for touched) in the head” moment is worth noting.
The city often recognizes citizens and officers for doing a good deed. This is my moment to pat Chief Lewis on the back for his handling of his encounter with Ms. Halbert.
I’m guessing Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin was spitting nails last week after Whirllie Byrd qualified to run against him in this spring’s city elections. Byrd qualified as a Democrat and will have to overcome fellow Democrat Andre D. Roberts — he ran for Chancery Court clerk against Lisa Younger Neese 18 months ago — in the May 2 primary before she actually would face Gavin in the June 6 general election.
But the calendar really doesn’t matter. Byrd ran against Gavin — and lost by a wide margin — in the Republican primary four years ago. Earlier this year, she told Gavin, me and several others she’d learned her lesson and wasn’t going to run again.
Two weeks ago, Gavin supported her in her bid to be reappointed to the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau board. His support helped make her reappointment unanimous. So she thanks him by running against him.
Whirllie and I are friends. She and her husband are great community activists and assets. She told me she decided to run because some of her neighbors in Northaven Woods asked her to because they were upset over some rent-to-own houses being built in the subdivision.
If the neighbors are upset, they should run for office. Whirllie is only enabling them because they don’t really have to do the hard work it takes to make a community better. But even worse, she’s raised questions about her real intentions and motivations by switching from Republican to Democrat. And worst of all, she’s gone against her word. And if your word doesn’t mean anything, what does?
It would be easy to be angry at developers Jabari Edwards and Russell Sheffield for the rent-to-own affordable housing development they are building in Northaven Woods. They used their connections and understanding of the system to change a key building rule to open the door for their project in the quiet neighborhood off Highway 45 North behind Carl Hogan Chevrolet.
By the time neighbors figured out what was going on, it was too late.
I have questions about the way the covenants were changed and whether out of courtesy Edwards and Sheffield should have met with the community in advance to address concerns. But with the development under way, it’s too late for legal arguments and taking a different approach.
Both Edwards and Sheffield are good businessmen who have done their share to give back to the community. I have to take them at their word that this is a genuine effort to help improve the community by giving low-income families a hand up through homeownership, and not just a money grab at the expense of a neighborhood.
In a recent article about the development, Edwards spoke a marvelous truth: “When we talk about blight in communities and the crime rate going up, one of the things that helps is when people have ownership. When people own something, they tend to have more pride.”
I’ve been preaching that for years, even to the point of trying to get the city to implement a neighborhood redevelopment authority like those that have been successful in other communities, including Tupelo.
I would challenge Edwards and Sheffield to put their words — and money — into action in some other neighborhoods where the problems about which he talks are real. I’d be happy to show them some where a fraction of the investment they are making in relatively safe Northaven Woods would make a big difference.
I suspect in some cases, such a gesture would be the spark to get other property owners in those neighborhoods to chip in.
Such an effort could erase any lingering doubts about whether their Northaven Woods project is just a money grab while setting an example for others to follow in real community redevelopment efforts.