Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said Wednesday at a forum on downtown crime that the July 6 shooting after First Friday festivities shouldn’t paint downtown or the festival as unsafe.
On Thursday, the six men hoping to replace the retiring sheriff offered their opinions.
Mike Godowns said First Friday should not be associated with the shooting of six on Broad Street because the violence took place after First Friday was over. “I don’t think they necessarily need to do away with it (First Friday) but the parties that be need to sit down and decide what they want to do with it.” Part of the answer falls in having more police presence on the streets of downtown. “We can always do more (to increase safety),” he said. “Downtown is adequate now.” Godowns said he believes the Downtown Development Authority could have used its money more wisely to put more officers on the streets during the event.
Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. John Ivey said he would see himself handling the controversy with First Friday similarly to Strength. “First Friday is not the problem,” he said. The problem, he believes, is the number of children breaking curfews. As sheriff, he would put more strict enforcement on keeping those children off the streets after curfew and increase patrols downtown. “First Friday is very safe and Augusta is very safe,” he said. The elements that start after First Friday is over are what is causing the perception that downtown is an unsafe place to be, he said.
Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles said he has been working on a plan to increase safety along Broad Street that could alleviate some of the unease patrons are feeling after a shooting on First Friday in July.
“The city should be able to enjoy an event like that. I wouldn’t call an end to it.” Peebles said he is not ready to reveal his plans for downtown yet as he continues to tweak the details. There is a perception that downtown is unsafe, but Peebles said downtown is safe. “But people have to feel safe,” he said. He hopes his ideas will help reverse that perception.
Richmond Schools Public Safety Lt. Richard Roundtree said First Friday was merely a victim in a larger problem across the county. The answer, he said, is not in canceling First Friday, but in cracking down on gang violence and problems with the county’s youth.
“What happened at First Friday is actually a microcosm of a bigger problem,” he said. To increase safety across all areas, Roundtree said he would develop gang task forces and other youth development programs. To reverse the perception of downtown being unsafe, Roundtree would increase the number of visible and plainclothes officers on the streets.
Freddie Sanders said giving in to “punks and thugs” is not the answer.
“I wouldn’t let them intimidate me or keep me from downtown,” he said. As sheriff, Sanders said he would “flood downtown” with plainclothes officers. He said he wants the troublemakers to know that just because you don’t see someone in uniform doesn’t mean you aren’t being watched.
“I’m going to let the judge know that they’re causing trouble downtown and hope we can keep them off the streets for a very long time,” he said. Sanders realizes that the perception that downtown is unsafe could be just as detrimental as it actually being unsafe. As sheriff, he said he would encourage people to come downtown with the promise that he would increase safety. “Downtown is one of our best assets. If we can’t keep people coming downtown then we’re not sending a good message.”
Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Robbie Silas said First Friday lacks organization. Silas said he feels the shooting was “an isolated event” that should not keep the event from happening in the future.
If he were sheriff, he said he would urge business owners to decide if they want to go forward with the monthly event. If the answer were yes, Silas said he would work to put as many officers on the streets as the sheriff’s office could afford to keep the public safe.
“When incidents happen on the street, that is our responsibility as law enforcement, and when events are placed throughout the community, we need to know about them to make sure we have adequate law enforcement,” he said.