Columbus’ crime rate remained almost level last year while rates nationally fell to their lowest levels in at least two decades, according to new FBI data. The statistics could become part of the debate as the City Council and mayoral campaigns heat up.
Mayor Michael B. Coleman and the four City Council members running to retain their seats this year — all Democrats — still can point to city crime rates that remain among the lowest in more than a decade since Coleman took office.
But Republican mayoral candidate Earl W. Smith, and two Republican and two Libertarian City Council challengers, say the city’s elected leaders are not doing enough to address crime in neighborhoods.
Nationally, the violent- and property-crime rates fell to their lowest levels since at least 1991, the FBI said. Locally, the FBI numbers show 7.1 violent crimes and 64.9 property crimes per 1,000 Columbus residents last year, both up a fraction from 2009.
“The media dubbed the summer of 2010 the ‘summer of violence,’ ” said Dan Williamson, the mayor’s spokesman. “Since then, we have seen a change. We have seen violent crime decrease significantly.”
But in pockets of Columbus, people say they don’t feel any safer.
“I realize, overall, that the trend is downward, but we have a neighbor over on Champion (Avenue) who has had to duck while going into her house; she has bullet holes in her house,” said Kathy Webb, captain of the Ohio/Parsons Block Watch on the Near East Side.
Webb said the block watch tried to meet with Councilwoman Michelle M. Mills, who leads the council’s safety committee, but received no reply from her or her office for several months.
Mills, appointed to the council in January, is one of the four incumbents on the ballot this fall. The others are President Andrew J. Ginther and Councilmen Hearcel F. Craig and Zachary M. Klein.
Mills said she has met with many block-watch groups since she became the leader of the safety committee. She pointed out that the council took up the issue of stronger trespassing laws after meetings with groups on the Far East Side.
Kathleen Bailey, chairwoman of the Near East Area Commission, said Mills is no worse than the rest of the council: “We get very little help from the council.”
Ginther took exception to any suggestion that the council is not listening. He pointed to community meetings he set up throughout the city after he became council president in January.
“This council and these council members have gone beyond what any council has done in the past as far as being accessible,” he said.
The two Republican council candidates, Matt Ferris and Daryl Hennessy, did meet with Webb. They said they have a plan to help neighborhoods such as hers.
“The City Council has just absolutely chosen to ignore them,” Ferris said.
Ferris and Hennessy said they would work with police officers to determine what resources are needed, possibly moving officers from quieter neighborhoods to areas that need help. The Police Division brass reorganized precincts last year to place more patrol officers in the highest-crime areas.
Then, the GOP candidates said, they would look for ways to stop the drug dealers and other criminals who congregate on street corners. Key to that, they said, is finding a way to enforce loitering laws.
That’s something the council has hesitated to do. When the council took up tougher laws aimed at trespassing on private property this summer, the city attorney’s office said that arresting people for loitering on public property has been ruled unconstitutional: People have a right to use public sidewalks unless they are committing a crime.
But Hennessy said such a law could be written to work. “It’s not unconstitutional to try to fix it,” he said.
Mills said she’s been considering a loitering law. The problem, she said, is finding a way to word it so the city won’t get sued and that also would do what neighborhood groups want: allow police to pick up troublemakers on the street.
In addition to allocating more than 70 percent of the city’s general fund to safety services, Coleman and the council Democrats point to steps they’ve taken recently to curb crime in troubled neighborhoods:
- Coleman has ordered summer police strike forces since 2005 to tamp down violence on the streets.
- Five high-crime neighborhoods — including the Mount Vernon area of the Near East Side — will have police surveillance cameras by the end of the year at a cost of about $2 million.
- The mayor started a program this year to draw older teens off the streets and into the city’s recreation centers, where they can receive mentoring.
- The council approved tougher laws this summer to crack down on those who trespass repeatedly at neighborhood businesses and vacant lots.
It’s one thing to arrest people trespassing on private property, Libertarian City Council candidate Mark Noble said, but he doesn’t agree with loitering laws. “If there’s already a crime, you should go after that,” he said.
He said he would advocate for the reform of drug laws — up to the legalization of drugs — to take away the violence that comes with a black-market drug trade. He’s running on a ticket with Robert F. Bridges Jr.
Williamson said the mayor was unavailable to comment yesterday. But George Speaks, a deputy safety director, said the city has had 11 fewer homicides this year than at the same time last year and that other crimes are down as well.
In the long term, all candidates said that the fix for the crime problem is a solid economy full of jobs and opportunity.
Smith, a retired police sergeant, said that too many people living in the worst neighborhoods have no job training.
“We’re going to have to do not just the training but mentoring to help them fit in a more-normal role in society,” Smith said.
He called surveillance cameras and summer police strike forces “baloney.”
“We’re going to have to try different things because, frankly, we’re not having success.”