Business owners are hopeful that a plan unveiled Thursday by Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree will change the perception of a dangerous downtown.
Although he said he thinks Augusta’s downtown is no different from other cities its size, the president and CEO of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau said anything that can be done to enhance a feeling of safety downtown will be a benefit.
“It’s a crucial component of making our city a better destination for visitors,” Barry White said.
The new Safety Management and Response Team Unit will be made up of certified deputies and community safety officers.
The community safety officers will not be certified and will not have arrest powers. They will be trained by law enforcement instructors to be the “eyes and ears” of downtown: to observe and report criminal or suspicious activities, aid in emergencies, prevent crime and assist with traffic control.
Dressed in fluorescent yellow shirts with reflectors, the community service officers won’t be difficult to spot. That’s the idea, Roundtree said as he delivered his speech at Augusta Common in front of the five new outfitted officers.
He hopes the highly visible officers will act as deterrents to crime.
The sheriff and Augusta Commission had been working on the vision for some time, Roundtree said, but were running into budget restrictions.
“I directed my staff to reallocate resources from all other divisions,” the sheriff said.
“We were also able to civilianize at least three nonlaw enforcement positions so we can get more production from the sheriff’s office without adding any money to our budget.”
As their training gets underway, the officers, who will work different shifts, are expected to be downtown on foot or on their various vehicles, including Segways, bicycles, golf carts, automobiles and Mule ATVs.
Cedric Johnson, the director of community affairs at Georgia Regents University, attended the briefing and said he was happy to see the sheriff taking a proactive approach to safety that he hoped would change the perception of downtown.
“GRU is interested in anything in downtown Augusta, especially when you’re talking about safety,” he said.
The university already organizes “Go Downtown” one Thursday each month to foster relationships among faculty, staff members, students and downtown businesses.
Ben Casella, the owner of Casella Eye Center on Broad Street, said he was pleased with the plan.
“I came down to see if this idea is as good as it sounds, and it appears to be,” he said.
Although the new unit was designed with downtown in mind, Roundtree said it can be used in other areas where Augusta is continuing to see growth.