Heroin and other drug use is skyrocketing in Bartholo- mew County, forcing local law enforcement agencies to respond to a growing number of calls about overdoses and drug-related crimes.

The Columbus Police Department, for example, responded to two separate incidences within a 24-hour period last week of heroin overdoses that forced officers to administer the life-saving drug, Narcan.

The surge in drug use, especially heroin, has set local residents on edge as they try to protect their families from the effects of drugs.

That’s why one neighbor-hood watch group has decided to expand its crime watch boundaries to include all of downtown Columbus as a way of protecting themselves and their neighbors.

The Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch voted at its Feb. 29 meeting to restore its borders to the areas between First and 11th streets to the north and south and Washington Street and Central Avenue to the east and west, encompassing all of the historic downtown, said Chris Rutan, Ninth Street Watch coordinator.

The Ninth Street watch group originally operated in those parameters when it was formed in 2010, Rutan said.

A second group, now known as the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, was later formed as a crime watch specifically for the downtown area, Rutan said.

However, when the Historic Downtown Neighborhood Alliance decided that it wanted to focus on historic preservation rather than crime, the Ninth Street Park group chose to once again include downtown Columbus in its parameters, Rutan said.

“We’ve pushed the criminals more toward downtown to the Washington Street area. And if they’re not going to be a crime watch group, we don’t want criminals knocking on our door attempting to come back to our area,” he said.

Although members of the Ninth Street Watch are charged with keeping an eye out for drug dealers and any other criminal activity, Lisa Pein, a member of the group, told WISH-TV she is asking her neighbors also to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity to the police.

Pein pointed to one recent example of a local drug overdose as a reason groups such as the Ninth Street Park watch are vital in the community.

Christian Wilson, a 25-year-old mother, was found unconscious and slumped over the steering wheel of her car in an east side driveway — a little more than a mile east of Ninth Street Park. Police said they suspect she overdosed on heroin while three of her children — each younger than age 5 — sat in the backseat.

“It’s sad for the people who are trapped in addiction. It’s sad for their children. My heart breaks for their family,” Pein said.

Police department spokesman Justin Black told WISH-TV that officers revived Wilson less than 24 hours after they revived another heroin user.

Officer Black said the department is committed to tracking down how drugs are entering Columbus.

Fights, drug activity and other crimes in the vicinity of Ninth Street Park were major concerns when a group of neighbors first met and asked city officials for their help in November 2012.

Throughout the next few years Columbus police made the area a greater focus with increased patrols, which led to more arrests and fewer incidents.

As a result, Ninth Street began changing from an unkempt neighborhood with a high rate of crime into one where people can walk their dogs without being accosted.

“Columbus is still an extremely safe city,” Black said. “We’re always here to protect our citizens and we will keep them safe continuously moving forward.”

Similarly, Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop has identified combating drug crimes as one of the major focal points of his administration.

Lienhoop will speak at the March 28 meeting of the Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch to explain what role city administrators can play in curbing local drug use and crimes.

The mayor will be joined at the meeting by Columbus Fire Department Chief Mike Compton; Mary Ferdon, executive director of administration and community development; and Dave Hayward, executive director of public works/city engineer.

Additional city department heads will be invited to speak at upcoming meetings for the neighborhood watch, Rutan said.

Local residents who attend the meeting will have a chance to ask city officials specific questions about their plans to reduce crime in the city or about other issues.

Pein said the Ninth Street watch group has spotted dealers before, and they’re ready to do it again.

“You need to stop. You’re breaking up families,” she said. “You’re killing people, causing children to lose their parents.”

If you go

Ninth Street Park Neighborhood Watch meeting

Author photo
Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.