Last year, neighbors banded together to fight a war on drugs, prostitution and other crimes in Harrisburg. The war has since subsided as residents say they’re beginning to see brighter days.
“I think things are getting better,” said Phillip Williams, who lent his time last fall to ride the streets of the neighborhood with a dash cam to capture illegal activities.
Over several months in late 2012 a group of community activists consisting of Williams, Butch Palmer, Woody Merry and others developed a plan to clean up the streets. The group distributed more than 1,000 flyers, conducted self-defense classes, cut down a tree known for being a drug meet-up spot, and spray painted “GOT COPS” – an acronym for “Get of out town. Citizens on patrol.” – over existing gang symbols found in the area.
Merry said the project didn’t die, but it just isn’t really needed anymore.
“It was very effective what we did, and as far as I know there haven’t been any calls back there to help,” Merry said. “I’m very proud of what we did.”
Williams said he often sees police in the area, making traffic stops and arrests. It gives him a sense that police are really actively working Harrisburg’s issues.
It’s the police presence and actions that have allowed community members to step back from their own patrols.
“I haven’t seen the statistics but I have to believe that the serious crimes are deteriorating and the bad folks are moving on,” Williams said.
Crime statistics don’t show a drastic drop in crimes over the same period last year. An analysis of violent, property and drug-related crimes in Harrisburg show that the sheriff’s office has handled 246 cases through October of this year. During the same period last year there were about 35 more cases.
“We’ve not had the issues with violence but that’s not to say it isn’t here,” said Kelly McKnight, the senior pastor of Bible Deliverance Temple on Fenwick Street. “The other night we were awakened by gunshots.”
What is more important to residents than a slight drop in crime numbers is the overall sense that things are moving in the right direction.
Over the last four months, members of the church have met on the streets of Harrisburg in the evening to walk and pray. So far, there have been no problems or safety concerns.
“It’s shows we’re here, we’re unified and we’re not afraid of our neighborhood,” said Charlotte McGee-Ginn, the associate pastor at Bible Deliverance Temple.
The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office is trying to take a more proactive approach to crime in the county, including Harrisburg. At command staff meetings, held four days a week, officers discuss all major crimes reported since the last meeting. If there is a problem in a certain area, additional cars will be sent to the area to attack the problem.
“We want to solve problems while they’re small and manageable, before they get to the chronic stage,” said Capt. Steve Strickland.
Overall, Harrisburg’s problems are not unique to that neighborhood, Strickland said, but it does have a determined group of homeowners who have demonstrated that certain types of conduct will not be accepted.
Instead of seeing fed-up homeowners moving away, residents are seeing the opposite.
“I do see some people moving here with purpose now instead of out of desperation,” McKnight said.
Enthusiasm over the possible mills development is also bringing renewed interest to the area. The city is pushing a plan to renovate textile mills in the area to be part of Georgia Regents University campus expansion.
Butch Palmer said the drug problem has subsided for the most part but a literal clean-up is still needed.
Last year Palmer would have said drug houses were the biggest blight, but now it’s garbage strewn along streets like Britts Lane.
“The biggest problems are vagrants who come in and litter. The deputies won’t arrest or fine them,” he said.
Palmer pointed to the “broken window theory,” which holds that small acts of deviance like littering and graffiti will escalate to more serious crimes if ignored.
Palmer and others in Harrisburg have prepared a petition to submit to the commission on Tuesday that advocates for increased fines for littering.