This week the ad-hoc Crime Prevention Committee submitted its recommendations to the Columbus city council, almost a year after the group was formed as a response to increased crime in the city.
It may sound cynical to say we’ve heard it all before
But it would not be at all inaccurate.
This was particularly true in the committee’s most detailed report offer by the Law Enforcement Enhancement subcommittee, which called for more cops, better compensation for cops, better equipment for cops, working more closely with the sheriff’s department, emphasis on neighborhood watch groups, establishing better community policing through installing police substations, data-driven approaches to crime, volunteer support to perform mundane tasks and allow officers to spend more time on the streets.
We do not challenge the legitimacy of any of these suggestions nor do we doubt for a moment the good-faith effort put into the work by the committee members. The committee, led by Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, has done a good job looking at crime from multiple aspects.
But for long-time residents, almost all of these suggestions are familiar.
As far back as 15 years ago, the CPD began opening police substations. By 2010, the city had five substations located strategically in areas where crime was most prolific. The theory behind the substations is that it would create an environment where officers worked primarily in the area where their substations were located – a basic tenet of community policing. The better officers know the place and people they serve, the better they are able perform their work.
Today, none of those substations remain.
Residents will also remember that in 2017 the city spent $19,000 on a police consultant who devoted six months to examining the police department. His final report included virtually everything included in the report submitted to the city council this week, including police department morale.
In 2017, much of the morale issues identified by the consultant focused on the police department’s leadership. It recommended that the city replace its chief, Oscar Lewis, who retired a few months after the report.
The consultant also noted the police department was seriously undermanned. It advised the city to bring police department staffing to 70 officers. An aggressive recruitment campaign was started, but retention has been a challenge.
Tuesday’s report, which included feedback from 31 of 55 officers (still far below the 2017 recommended number, by the way), suggested there remain morale issues within the department. Police Chief Fred Shelton said he believes most of the low morale issues can be attributed to low pay and poor equipment and the inevitable turn-over those conditions create.
Again, this is nothing new. The city’s preliminary budget included pay raises and upgrades in equipment, but they were left out of the final budget when the city discovered a $1.5 million miscalculation. The final budget included some equipment upgrades but raises are still being discussed and will be a challenge to fund.
So, yes, while we appreciate the effort put into the report, we have heard it all before.
And, yes, we still believe there is merit in each recommendation.
Given that, we are left to wonder why we are still having the same discussions over the same issues we’ve had going back 10, 15 years.
Perhaps what is needed is not new solutions, but a commitment to the solutions we’ve known about all along.
Our police department remains under-staffed, under-paid and under-equipped.
Neighborhood watches come and go. So do police substations. Community policing is, for all intents and purposes, an empty phrase, a vision unfulfilled.
It may not be a lack of good ideas that keeps our community on this what-to-do-about-crime treadmill. It may be more a lack of commitment to sustaining them.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.