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Residents partner with police to curb downtown crime

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A year ago, residents in one downtown historic neighborhood expressed concern about escalating evidence of drugs, crime and vandalism and worried about declining property values.

A year later, people who live near the 11th and Washington Street area and sought help from city officials say they are seeing improvements.

About 30 neighborhood residents met last week with Mayor Kristen Brown, Police Chief Jon Rohde, Community Development Director Carl Malysz and other city leaders to review progress that has been made and map out future improvements.

“We’ve bonded as a community,” said Sheryl Nulph, who leads the 11th and Washington Streets Neighborhood Watch Program. “Because of that, we continue calling when something doesn’t look right or when trash is left out. We have a sense of community now and are all working together to improve things.”

In order to accomplish its goals, the watch group members are “stepping up their game” at the beginning of their second year, Nulph said.

Crime was a major concern at the neighborhood’s first meeting last year.

During the Aug. 26 session, residents applauded when Rohde reported a 94.4 percent increase in arrests in the area, a 17.7 percent increase in service calls initiated by police officers and an 8.2 percent reduction in service calls initiated by neighborhood residents and business owners.

Columbus police have increased community policing patrols, Brown said, although law enforcement efforts have not been made without sacrifice.

“Honestly, we’re struggling with all the pro-active community policing,” the mayor said. “It’s incredibly effective, but it’s also extremely hard to keep up. We’re digging high into our resources just to get minimum manpower on the streets.”

The first draft of Brown’s proposed 2015 budget included money to hire three new city police officers — the same number assigned to the Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving unit in July 2013.

However, on Tuesday, city council members dropped two of the proposed officers from the city’s salary ordinance. A final decision about the number of officers will be considered at the 6 p.m. Sept. 16 city council meeting.

Neighborhood on camera

Neighborhood residents viewed more than 40 live images from security cameras that have been added in the neighborhood.

Four surveillance cameras with 10 viewing angles are positioned at 11th and Washington streets and in the alleys between Washington and Franklin streets.

Security specialist Joe Wood demonstrated how a high-resolution camera set up at Fire Station No. 1 can read gas purchases across the street at the 11th and Washington Marathon station.

These images, which Wood said are automatically saved for 20 days, are available to all officers on patrol, as well as at the front desk of the Columbus Police Department.

In the past year, Columbus police have made four arrests for dealing drugs at the 11th and Washington intersection, Rohde said.

In addition to updating the neighbors on crime concerns, city officials also talked about efforts in October and April to clean up the area. The April cleanup included work on dozens of private properties, alleys, curbs and gutters, city officials said.

However, several neighborhood residents said there are ongoing problems with trash left in yards, vacant and dilapidated houses, abandoned vehicles, unmaintained lawns and drainage problems.

A concentrated code enforcement effort is underway in the neighborhood, according to Columbus City Garage Manager Bryan Burton and recently appointed code enforcement official Clark Greiner.

Neighborhood resident Dale Nowlin said one of the largest unresolved issues is declining property values resulting from residences, especially rental investments, that aren’t being properly maintained.

“What still needs to be done is really in the hands of the city council, rather than the mayor,” the Franklin Street resident said.

“If (a property issue) is unsafe, we will take care of it immediately,” Burton said. “But if it’s just neglect, we will try to work with the property owner, and that takes time.”

Code-enforcement database

The city is developing a database utilizing local geographical information systems that will allow code-enforcement officials to identify landlords or tenants who disregard codes and ordinances on a repetitive basis, Greiner said.

While this computer program still has a few bugs to work out, it should become increasing useful in keeping track of repeat offenders as more data is entered, Greiner said.

After three residents requested that the city use its staff to locate and resolve property issues, Brown put forward what she feels may be a more realistic expectation.

“If we attempt to go after every ordinance violation that way, we’d have to double our staff,” the mayor said. “We have no choice but to be complaint-oriented.”

“We have to stay committed,” she told the group. “We still have a long way to go.”

The aggressive approach that Brown’s administration has taken toward addressing unsafe properties is unprecedented in the city’s 194-year history, Malysz told the group.

“(Past administrations) may have put up placards; but in regard to aggressively bringing these issues to the Board of Works, declaring a property unsafe, developing a response and following up on decisions, it’s never been done this way before,” he said.

Susan Tener said she has seen several neighborhood problems emerge during the 47 years she’s lived near 11th and Franklin streets.

“I’m very optimistic that this group is going to help resolve our problems,” Tener said.

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