Downtown is safe; media to blame, sheriff says

Downtown is safe, and the media are to blame for making it appear otherwise, Sheriff Ronnie Strength told a forum Wednesday night.

The number of crimes downtown “is not a blip,” the sheriff said, chastising local journalists for what he said was an inaccurate portrayal after a July 6 shooting that wounded six people. He said the coverage has been excessive.

“Fort Hood didn’t get that much media attention,” he said, referencing the 2009 Texas military post shooting in which a single gunman killed 13 people and wounded 29 others.

Wednesday’s forum at the Augusta-Richmond County Library, put on by Augusta District 1 commissioner Matt Aitken and attended by about 125 people, was held in reaction to the recent shooting and concerns by downtown merchants and others.

Strength, one of several panelists, presented statistics that he said showed downtown is a safe place.

He said his office has received 296 criminal calls in the downtown area, which he described as from Fourth to 13th streets and from the Savannah River to Greene Street, in the past six months. He said 194 were for misdemeanors including thefts, thefts from an automobile, criminal trespassing and simple assault.

He did not offer a comparison of crime incidents in other areas of the city.

The panel also included Brenda Durant, the executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council; Peggy Seigler, of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau; Ben Casella, of the Downtown Augusta Alliance; and Sanford Loyd, of the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative.

Panelists were asked two questions: What can we collectively do to improve the overall health of downtown, and what can we do about the future of First Friday?

Strength said he would like to see someone take responsibility for the event from 6- 10 p.m. He said his deputies would take care of it after that.

“After 10 o’clock they belong to me,” he said

Durant said the arts council had been in charge for the past few years since the Downtown Development Association no longer wanted to run it. She explained the process of giving out passes for vendors and how each store is responsible for the space in front of each establishment.

She said she would welcome the input and support from others invested in the area.

Panelists said they want to regulate the hours of First Friday and shut it down when those hours end. An idea sheet was posted on the wall where each suggestion was written down.

City Administrator Fred Russell said the forum panel would meet again early next week and would be tasked with writing down a plan of how to move forward with the monthly event. He encouraged the public to submit ideas on paper at the meeting or e-mail him over the weekend.

“We will put together a plan for August’s First Friday,” he said.

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