Officials with the Columbus Arts Council told The Dispatch last week a Tupelo daycare has withdrawn from attending an upcoming artist event because of fears of violence in Columbus.
The daycare was planning to bring its students to the Young People’s Artist Series next month at the Mississippi University for Women, according to Beverly Norris, program manager with CAC and the coordinator of YPAS. But CAC officials were informed recently the daycare would not be making the trip to the event because of safety concerns, according to Norris.
The Dispatch tried to reach the Tupelo business for comment. Our messages were not returned.
Norris said this is the first case of a school withdrawing for safety concerns in the 25-plus years the YPAS program has existed.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, in a statement issued Friday to The Dispatch, lamented the daycare’s withdrawal from the YPAS program, which typically brings in six or seven schools from around the region. He said visitors should not be concerned about their safety in Columbus.
“We are disappointed that these students will not be attending the Young People’s Artist Series in Columbus,” the mayor said. “Protecting the public is a top priority of our law enforcement professionals and the administration of this city. Columbus’ law enforcement officers have made multiple arrests of those accused of breaking the law.”
Smith said the city will continue to “aggressively protect” the city’s citizens and visitors. He also noted that CPD is working closely with neighborhood watch groups all over the city.
“The Columbus Police Department has instituted multiple social channels to communicate quickly with the citizens and that near-instantaneous information has led to arrests that might not otherwise have been possible,” Smith said.
But could such social media postings — and the buzz that follows — be creating a negative impression of Columbus?
Joe Dillon, the city’s public information officer, said the city sees the pros and cons to providing information on criminal activity in real-time. However, he said the city will still err on the side of openness.
“There’s a good side and a bad side to the near-instant communications of today,” he said. “It’s easy for the public to get the perception that there’s increasing crime in the city when what we are doing is just reporting it quicker. We still know that being more open and transparent is still the best policy. The citizens need to know what is happening in their city and that’s what we’re telling them.”
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There have been multiple confirmed shootings, some fatal, in Columbus in the two months since 2016 began.
Following each incident, CPD took to its Twitter and Facebook accounts to notify residents of the circumstances in real time. The purpose of the accounts, city officials have said, is to keep citizens updated and to combat against misinformation.
At Thursday’s Southside/Downtown Neighborhood Watch meeting, Brent Swan of the city’s Criminal Investigation Department said the perception that there has been a dramatic rise in crime in the city is not confirmed by the facts. He said the city’s “real-time” reporting of incidents on its Twitter account has made residents more aware of crime that they might not otherwise hear about.
Fred Shelton, a captain with CPD, told The Dispatch earlier this year he believes the need to inform citizens outweighs any negatives.
“I don’t think (it hurts),” he said of the social media updates. “I think it makes the public more informed and more aware. I’d much rather know what’s coming than not know. If there’s an incident down the street from my house, I want to know that for the safety of my children and family. Maybe I need to get my children off the street or not go that way.”
Kevin Williams, an associate professor in the department of communications at Mississippi State University, said anytime information is released via social media, the public’s online responses are typically going to be either entirely positive or entirely negative. The people in the middle — likely the majority — are not going to comment digitally.
“They don’t see it as necessary,” he said.
Williams said despite the possible negatives, he views the CPD’s efforts to keep citizens updated via Twitter and Facebook as a positive.
“I’m all for allowing those exchanges to occur,” he said.
For one, it creates a dialogue that otherwise would not exist. Also, Williams said, it gives the department an opportunity to assess, in a small way, public perception of the department.
The professor suggested using social media to also let the community know about efforts the department is making to educate people, for example, or events the city is hosting.
And while the city does that occasionally — the CPD Twitter account has posted about town hall meetings — residents should not expect too much in the way of public relations coming from the social media accounts.
“We will not use the account for public relations purposes,” Shelton said last year when the CPD Twitter account went live. “There is already so much social media noise in the world today and we don’t want to add to that. If we post something, it will be because the public needs to know.”
Dispatch managing editor William Browning contributed to this report.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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