Fourth Street South resident Japa Castro said his children have come up with a game they call “firecrackers or gunshots.”
That’s how prevalent the sound of gunshots has become in South Columbus, he told the city council at its meeting Tuesday.
He was one of a group of Southside residents who attended the meeting to raise concerns about what they said was an unprecedented increase in gun violence in their area. Specifically, the residents said they witnessed an exchange of gunfire between individuals in two vehicles on the 400 block of Seventh Avenue South at about 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 19, a shooting they said they never saw reported in local media and which they did not feel Columbus Police Department was adequately investigating.
“Our home was in the direct path of a driveby gun shooting exchange between two vehicles,” Seventh Street South resident Megan Westby said. “The side of the street beside my driveway where my children had just been playing only minutes before were littered with shell casings.”
The residents pointed out the Feb. 19 shooting happened only blocks from a shooting on Saturday, during which four people were injured, three severely enough to be flown to a trauma center outside Columbus.
There was also a second shooting on Feb. 19 on Military Road, which residents said they felt may have taken the attention of police and media.
Police have not made arrests in any of these shootings, though investigators did release the names of two juveniles wanted for questioning in relation to the Saturday shooting that injured four people.
Julie Parker, a Southside resident who has worked with CPD in the past on crime prevention programs, submitted a list of 10 requests for ways to address crime in the city, including a proposal and estimated placement for surveillance cameras and new street lights in high-crime areas.
The concerns come at a time when violent crime has increased sharply nationwide, with the homicide rate up more than 30 percent in some major cities. Shelton said he thinks the pent-up frustration and economic hardship brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is a contributing factor to the increase in violence.
“People are out of work, people are frustrated. People are at home more,” he said. “They’re not able to relax more because COVID-19 has had people staying at home. … The normal recreation that people have as American citizens, we can’t enjoy (those) freedoms.
He said Columbus Police Department is continuing to investigate both Southside shootings as well as other shootings in the city. Moreover, he said he would respond to Parker and the other residents’ requests in writing by the end of the week.
Among the residents’ requests was an update to the investigation into the shootings, extra patrols in high-crime areas and numbers of officers in CPD, all by the end of the week.
Currently, Shelton told The Dispatch, there are 53 officers on staff, with eight on the department’s day shift and nine on the night shift. The department is budgeted for 64 officers, and Shelton said he plans to submit four new officers’ names for hiring to the city council at its next meeting and that they can begin patrolling after completing the Police Academy in Pearl.
“On Fridays and Saturdays I have officers come in overtime to specifically work high-crime areas … starting about 6 o’ clock in the evening to about 2 o’ clock in the morning,” he said.
As for the Feb. 19 shooting, he said investigators have no suspects and cannot say for sure whether the shooting is connected to others in the city.
The residents also requested CPD come up with plans to work more closely with Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office, to implement a social media campaign to raise awareness of crime, to re-establish neighborhood watch programs and “to target houses or properties where criminal activity is known to occur,” all by the end of the month.
Shelton said many of those things CPD is already doing, including working closely with LCSO through the departments’ joint drug task force. LCSO also helped respond to the Saturday shooting.
Shelton said he will also work with City Public Information Officer Joe Dillon to put together virtual meetings with neighborhood watch programs and implement a police blotter that will give residents a weekly update on the calls CPD has responded to. That will include not just crime, but traffic accidents and other incidents as well, he said.
The residents also asked the council to come up with a proposal for more streetlights and surveillance cameras in high-crime areas.
Vice Mayor Bill Gavin, who presided over Tuesday’s meeting for the absent Mayor Robert Smith while the mayor recovers from a hospital stint last month, said he met with Shelton and city Technology Director Greg Drake to see about addressing those concerns.
He said city officials will have to look into different grants and funding options to implement surveillance cameras in Southside. He said he doesn’t have an estimated cost yet, but even if it’s high, he thinks the city should do it.
“We’ve got to get a handle on this (crime),” he said. “This is getting out of hand.”
Response to complaints of police inadequacy
The residents also complained Tuesday night that they felt police response to the Feb. 19 shooting was inadequate. They were particularly concerned that they continued to find shell casings around their homes over the next few days and that they didn’t see any mention of the shooting in local media.
Susan Mackay, a Southside resident and local business owner, said she was sitting in her living room with her elderly mother when she heard the shots. She and other neighbors called 911, but did not see any police come by. She said she left to get dinner and when she came back about an hour later, she called 911 again after finding shell casings on the street.
At that time police came by, collected evidence and talked to area residents, she and her neighbors reported.
Even then, residents reported they continued to find shell casings and bullet holes on their properties throughout the next week, with Mackay reporting her 5-year-old grandson found where a bullet entered her car.
“It unnerved me,” she said.
But Shelton said he visited E-911’s call center to hear the recordings of the calls made that night. He said of the multiple phone calls at the time of the shooting — at about 5:50 p.m. — none of the residents gave their names or addresses, just a general area of where the shooters in the vehicles were driving.
He said he had two police cars on the scene within a few minutes, who stayed in the area for 20 minutes looking for the shooters.
“The complainant didn’t give us an address or a name,” he said. “We were checking the area for vehicles that were shooting at each other. None of the four callers requested, said, ‘Come knock on my door and get my information from me.’ Nobody did that.”
He said it wasn’t until Mackay called at 6:52 p.m. that any of the residents gave a name or identifying information.
“We had already searched the area,” he said. “We had responded.”
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair took part in editing this article. He is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus. Details are available in previous reporting.