How safe are visitors to downtown Augusta? It depends on when they visit and where they go.
Those who stay out after midnight are more likely to run into trouble.
Reports of crime increase almost fivefold between midnight and 3 a.m., according to crime reports compiled by The Augusta Chronicle.
“I think downtown is safe, but you have to be cautious,” Richmond County sheriff’s Capt. Scott Gay said. “If it’s normal business hours, I think it’s a safe place to be.”
The Chronicle analyzed more than 1,400 sheriff’s office reports of crime and other incidents reported between Jan. 1, 2012, and May 7, 2013, in Augusta’s downtown business district. The analysis – coming in the wake of a May 3 assault on Riverwalk Augusta that injured two people – focused on an area bounded by the Savannah River and Telfair Street from Fifth to 13th streets and identified about 260 reports of assaults, thefts, robberies and drug crimes during the 16-month period.
Overall, the number of crimes reported doesn’t differ much from parts of the county considered safer, such as west Augusta.
About 2 percent of serious crimes countywide – assaults, thefts, burglaries, robberies, damage to property and drug arrests – occur in Augusta’s downtown business district, according to crime data supplied by the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
Lt. Calvin Chew said authorities believe that downtown is actually safer, especially on weekends, because of the increased police presence.
Normally, two officers are assigned to the area – one in a police cruiser and one in a Mule, a golf cart-type vehicle. During the day, downtown also has two bicycle officers. On the weekends, the police presence increases as more officers are brought in for special assignments at bars or special events, such as First Friday.
“Usually on weekends, you have more officers downtown than anywhere else (in Augusta),” Chew said.
Most of the problems that occur downtown take place near Broad Street around the time bars close, according to police.
The Chronicle’s analysis also showed that more than half of serious crimes reported in downtown Augusta occur on Broad Street – where bars and restaurants stay open late. Of those crimes reported on Broad Street, about half occur between midnight and 3 a.m.
“We’re pulling people from different assignments, the traffic division and just about everyone in special operations to work Broad Street,” Gay said.
Officers have also had an increased presence during First Friday, which draws large crowds into downtown, especially during the warm-weather months, but the police began adding resources after six people were shot after First Friday last July 6. No one was seriously injured.
Police never found the shooter but did discover a gun that had previously been reported stolen.
Police also began increasing their focus on the city’s midnight curfew for ages 17 and younger. Enforcement of the minors curfew became a big issue last year after the July shootings, and the sheriff’s office said it would crack down on violators.
Gay said it’s a constant problem that often ties up officers. Police are required to watch the minors until they can be turned over to an adult caretaker, but the adults are usually difficult to find.
“It’s difficult, but we do enforce it,” he said.
Despite a few high-profile incidents, First Friday weekends don’t produce more reports of crime than other weekends, according to the newspaper’s analysis. In fact, in the past 16 months, slightly fewer serious crimes were reported during First Friday weekends than on the other 53 weekends. Seven assaults and two robberies were reported during First Friday, most occurring in the early-morning hours after the event ended. Five robberies and 37 assaults were reported in the same hours on other weekends.
The increased police presence was in plce during this month’s First Friday, and overall there were few problems – until the attack on the riverwalk. In fact, the riverwalk has few reports of crime compared with other parts of the downtown district.
In the past 16 months, there have been no other reports of serious crime in the area where the couple was attacked.
Wesley Spires, 27, and Ashley Solesbee, 25, were robbed and assaulted by two men with metal bats or pipes behind the former Fort Discovery about 11 p.m. May 3. One of the suspects, Robbey Eugene Moses, was arrested Friday night in Newberry, S.C., along with Dominque Shantaee Hale, a suspect in a May 2 assault on a man who was robbed and carjacked as he left the Riverfront Pub on Broad Street. Moses is also a suspect in the Broad Street attack.
Authorities have identified 21-year-old Kevin Richardson as the second suspect in the riverwalk assault. He has not been found. More unwelcome attention on downtown safety came Monday when a video from the early morning of April 27 surfaced that showed young men and women fighting in the 900 block of Broad Street. The fight ended after gunshots apparently were fired.
The recent incidents did not stop some from going downtown for a weekend night out.
Ashley Brown and Shanice Griange, both of Augusta, were seated on a bench in front of the Imperial Theatre about 9 p.m. Friday while waiting on friends to go visit the riverwalk.
“We’re not concerned,” Brown said. “We never had a problem coming downtown.”
Many noticed an increased presence of law enforcement patrolling the streets and also the sidewalks, where groups of officers on foot and on bicycles were seen passing by.
“I think the added presence of security tonight is awesome,” said Chuck Deen, who was leaving dinner at Eros Bistro on Broad Street with his friend Brenda Hayes. “I think it’s a great sign that people want this to be a good environment and safe.”
Hayes said she hesitated just briefly before making the decision to visit downtown after the three recent incidents of violent crimes.
“It feels safe,” she said, of the extra police presence. “If security is not assured, it will have a chilling affect on me coming over here. If I don’t feel safe, I won’t come.”
City officials said at a meeting Wednesday that they believe crime downtown is more a perception than a reality. Regardless, they said there needs to be more focus on safety downtown.
In addition to seeing another increase in police presence, the sheriff’s office and the city are pushing for a video surveillance system.
Chief Deputy Pat Clayton said the sheriff’s office hopes to extend its bike patrol into the night.
The sheriff’s office is using existing technology in the downtown area; Gay declined to elaborate on the specifics of the technology.
The Augusta Commission also is discussing surveillance cameras, better lighting and plans to trim back trees and shrubs, especially at riverwalk, to increase visibility.
“We’re looking into everything,” Chew said. “The sheriff talks about putting on his uniform and getting out there if he has to.”
Staff Writer Jenna Martin contributed to this article.