Trip Hairston, president of the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, was skeptical of Columbus’ effort to form a Crime Prevention Task Force when he first read about it in the newspaper.
“To be honest, the first thing I did was roll my eyes,” Hairston told his fellow Columbus Rotarians Tuesday at Lion Hills Center. “It’s an election year. Of course they’re going to have a crime prevention task force.”
Then, he said, he changed his mind when he saw his county government colleague, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, was chairing the effort.
“That’s when I knew they must be serious,” Hairston said as he introduced Brooks to speak to the Rotary Club. “… Leroy and I may be on the opposite sides of the aisle (Hairston is a Republican and Brooks a Democrat), but I know a good program when I see it.”
Brooks, however, had his own misgivings when Mayor Robert Smith first asked him to chair this task force. In 2018 and 2019 he spearheaded a similar effort that reported findings on crime prevention to the city council. No action was taken.
“I don’t want to be part of some political stunt,” Brooks said Tuesday. “But I saw it as an opportunity to get in the room again and maybe do something.”
Since the new task force began earlier this year, its membership has grown and its approach is becoming more organized, Brooks said. Its “models” focus on building up youth programming, building stronger neighborhoods, situational crime prevention and enhancing law enforcement. The task force members are divided into subcommittees, ranging from community revitalization and public relations to education and law enforcement enhancement.
“The community must establish a standard it is willing to accept and an expectation for all of us to strive toward,” he said.
A key component of that is neighborhood aesthetics, Brooks said, and he hopes the task force can push for citizens to take more pride in their neighborhoods and for a more aggressive city process for cleaning blighted properties.
“All these dilapidated lots …. in some areas the town’s not pretty. It’s not clean,” he said, later adding to that point what he called the Broken Window Theory. “… If there is a window broken in a house and you don’t repair it, after a while guess what? They’re going to break the other windows. … It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, one broken window will lead to more broken windows. In other words, if you allow disorder in your community, whether it’s loitering or whatever, it leads to other crimes.”
The task force is working with city parks and recreation to bolster youth participation in structured programming, and Brooks said he wants to see the creation of an effective, community-wide youth organization.
On the law enforcement side, Brooks said the task force is advocating for better relations between Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and Columbus Police Department. He also highlighted the need for more data-driven policing on the city side, as well as a comprehensive plan for CPD recruiting and retaining patrol officers.
CPD has, for several years, suffered from understaffing and high turnover. Brooks said a comprehensive plan should examine the reasons behind that.
“Is it pay? Is it management? Or is it interference?” Brooks said. “… Elected officials are tempted a lot of places to want to manage every aspect of their city. They need to stay the hell … out of it. Hire the best person you can, pay them and leave them alone.
“Elected officials have to stay out of law enforcement,” he added later, emphasizing it was a “general statement” not necessarily directed at the mayor or city council. “It’s OK to help somebody, but you don’t need to micromanage them. I think when you do (micromanage), you kill the morale of policemen and they don’t do their jobs.”
He did direct toward the Columbus government his hope it would “develop a sense of urgency” around crime prevention and enact an effective plan from this effort, rather than “put it on a shelf.”
Conflict disclosure: Managing Editor Zack Plair wrote this story, which involves a city ad hoc committee. Plair is currently in legal proceedings that involve the city of Columbus. Details are available in previous reporting. This story was edited by Publisher Peter Imes.