Leaders assess ways to help curb criminal activity

Crime Fighters

Sheriff Ronnie Strength

Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength said the next step toward curbing crime in Augusta is already being taken.

His department is examining how to prioritize crimes to focus on serious offenses. That could mean you might not see a deputy at your door to take a report about barking dogs, identity theft or harassing phone calls, the sheriff said. It will allow his department to put more deputies in high crime areas. The sheriff said no plans have been finalized but he expected to make the changes by the end of January.

If he had his way, Strength said, he would have more money for more deputies and much stronger community involvement and support, which investigators say can be the difference between solved and unsolved cases.

Strength said he would be meeting this week with Clint Bryant, the athletic director for Augusta State University and a local crime activist.

"Clint is going to come down here (this) week and I'm going to listen to anything he has to say," he said.

Asked about a recent report by Bryant's daughter, Kristen, a Wake Forest University student, that came to the conclusion that crime is up in Augusta, Strength said he had not read it and could not speak to the accuracy of its conclusions.

The report, cited by Bryant when he asked Augusta Commission members to form a crime task force, uses FBI crime data and population numbers to compare Augusta, Georgia and the U.S. It concludes that crime has risen in Richmond County over the past decade even though per capita spending on law enforcement has increased.

"Everybody seems to be an expert, but there are no answers to these kinds of things," the sheriff said. "Crime will always be here. What we do is work like hell, you know, to keep it down as much as possible."

District Attorney Ashley Wright

For crime to decrease in Richmond County, District Attorney Ashley Wright believes everyone living there must refuse to accept and excuse bad behavior -- no matter the excuse.

"It would be great to have more officers," Wright said. "It would be great to have more attorneys and investigators. But it would be better to have more people adhering to the concepts of personal responsibility."

In an e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle , Wright said there are several immediate steps that could be taken:

- Children need to finish their education. Wright said the average Georgia Department of Corrections inmate reads at an eighth-grade level and performs math at a seventh-grade level -- meaning they often don't have the skills to care for themselves, let alone a family.

"If I had a wish list, it would include a military-style high school with a strict code of conduct to be enforced on campus and off," she said.

- Parents need to be more strict and nosy. They need to know what their kids are doing and apply consistent, appropriate discipline, Wright said. They need to provide an environment where bad behavior has consequences and not wait for the police, schools or courts to be the disciplinarians.

- People should stop glorifying criminal lifestyles.

"When the criminal becomes the hero, the focus is on the wrong person," she said. "If the drug dealer is your friend, he's still selling poison to someone else's child."

- Minors should have curfews to keep them off the streets at the most dangerous times of the day.

Wright said she was excited by Clint Bryant's attempt to "fire up and organize the community to fight back." She pointed to the work of area neighborhood associations that have worked together to curb crime near their homes.

"None of this is new and none of it is revolutionary," she said of her positions. "But it seems to the norm for fewer people each year."

Judge Carlisle Overstreet

Judge Carlisle Overstreet wants children to get the attention they need at home when they're young, not in his courtroom years later.

Overstreet has served on the bench in the Augusta Judicial Circuit for the past 19 years and was the victim of a burglary last summer in which he fatally shot an intruder.

He said two things should be done. The first is easy: Increase funding for law enforcement so more deputies are on the streets. The second isn't quite as simple.

"I think you have to make parents more responsible for their children," he said.

Overstreet, who has two grown sons, said he's not sure how that could be enforced but that the lack of parental involvement, along with drugs, is one of the main causes of crime in the community.

"There is no silver bullet for that either, except attention," he said. "You just have to keep up with them."

He also pointed to programs such as the Augusta Judicial Circuit's Drug Court, which sends nonviolent offenders addicted to drugs to treatment rather than jail.

Overstreet praised the work of Clint Bryant and supports the idea of an Augusta crime task force -- "because what you're going to do is -- in some shape or form -- bring attention to people who need some guidance before they get in jail or before they get to court."

District 6 Commissioner Joe Jackson

The sheriff's office has a firm grip on Augusta crime, and establishing a task force could place the public at risk, said District 6 Commissioner Joe Jackson, who heads the city's public safety committee.

Instead, Jackson suggested residents arm themselves, avoid dangerous situations and pay close attention to what goes on in their neighborhoods.

"What I don't want is a group of citizens that gets so mind-boggled that they try to meddle with the sheriff's business," he said. "The sheriff is very informed as far as what goes on in this county."

Crime is going to happen, even with a deputy "on every corner," Jackson said, so residents must use common sense.

"You don't go buy a stereo off of Craigslist at 4 o'clock in the morning," he said.

Augusta State University Athletic Director Clint Bryant

Much has been said about the crime problems plaguing Augusta, and Clint Bryant, the Athletic Director for Augusta State University, wants to talk some more.

In appeals to the local government, the sheriff and other officials, Bryant has made it clear that he believes the first step the area needs to take is to form a local task force to brainstorm solutions. Bryant acknowledged that he is no specialist in the area, just a concerned citizen who would like to push city leaders into making the fight against crime a priority. If that means the Richmond County Sheriff's Office needs a massive budget increase, so be it. If we need tighter restrictions on gun sales, do that too, he said.

Bryant doesn't have the answers, but he wants Mayor Deke Copenhaver, Sheriff Ronnie Strength and city commissioners to start working to find them.

"Once you take the first step, then I think other things will develop," he said.

Bryant suspects that drugs are the root cause of much of the violence -- something "we've never really dealt with in our country."

He thinks weapons are too easily obtained by those criminals and young people. He argues that stricter gun laws should be adopted locally and statewide to keep firearms away from them.

"It's all connected but who's going to pick up the mantle?" he said. "Who is going to lead?"

The Rev. Larry Fryer

The Rev. Larry Fryer wants to stop crime before it happens. Teenage mothers, young gang members and irresponsible parents should be treated with school and church programs that target their situation, says Fryer, the minister at Stone Chapel LME Church in Thomson and a transitional specialist for the Richmond County Board of Education.

"I think one of the most important things to change this criminal activity is we must begin now at those pre-K, kindergarten ages, before these children start forming their minds," Fryer said.

He points to his program, Unique Blend of Young Men, which was recently listed as a "model program" in the National Dropout Prevention Center's online database. It gives at-risk young men a combination of incentives and adult involvement to promote positive attitudes and social activities.

Fryer said local churches need to stand up to violence.

His plan is "where we get people like the church and people in the school system -- and of course parents -- to begin formulating some programs to start with these little ones."

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver

Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver has voiced support for Augusta State Athletic Director Clint Bryant's proposal to create a crime task force. Copenhaver has started a grant fund for neighborhood watch organizations with $1,000 of his own money.

A next step, he said, is for the task force to look to other communities for examples of "best practices" that might be implemented in Augusta.

"I would hope that the task force would take a look at what other cities are doing better," he said.

The mayor's role, Copenhaver said, is as a resource with access to good ideas, from the U.S. Council of Mayors, Georgia Municipal Association or beyond.

"We are not alone in trying to come up with innovative ways to combat crime," he said. "It's not just an Augusta issue; it's a national issue."

Copenhaver said he'd be willing to serve on Bryant's task force, a group to assist but never usurp the sheriff's powers.

"Clint Bryant stated it so well," he said. "The sheriff supports these efforts, and they are not to take the place of law enforcement."

Neighborhoods can help themselves by organizing associations to compete for grant funds, which Copenhaver said could be used to purchase an emergency telephone alert service and eventually hire their own off-duty deputies to protect their neighborhoods.

Commissioner J.R. Hatney

Super District 9 Commissioner J.R. Hatney called the task force "a waste of time," saying the only next step is to place law enforcement into the hands of a separate police department that answers to Augusta's mayor and commission.

"Most of your neighborhoods where you've got all that crime, they don't have any policing whatsoever," he said. "Police need to have a presence in communities."

Hatney said he'd discussed the idea with Sheriff Ronnie Strength, and it wasn't personal.

"It's a principle -- Augusta's here bragging about being the second-largest city in Georgia, and it doesn't have any police department."

The effectiveness of Augusta-Richmond's single-agency law enforcement, established during consolidation, "is getting worse, and it's not going to get any better until we have the sense to reorganize our public safety."

Complicating his proposal -- which would take eight commission votes -- is planned construction of a new sheriff's administration building.

Hatney said finding eight votes would take time.

"It's not that the folks don't know this is going on -- they know it's going on and they know what it needs to fix it," he said. "Sometimes it takes courage to go beyond relationships to do what needs to be done."

Phil Wahl

Crime increasing during an economic downturn is a problem many communities are facing, said Phil Wahl, the immediate past chairman of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

He said he believes information and education are keys to solving the problem. For example, people should remember to lock their doors and park in lighted places, he said.

"If you see something is going on, give law enforcement a call," he said.

He said he applauds ideas such as a crime task force and increased neighborhood watches.

Chris Cunningham, WifeSaver

Chris Cunningham recently closed one of his WifeSaver restaurants, in part because of a recent robbery, he said.

"The task force is a good place to start, but talking about it is one thing. We've got to do something about it," he said of crime.

"I think they need to increase the budget for the sheriff's department. That's the main thing. You can't ask the sheriff to increase patrols and increase his presence in areas but then cut his budget. Obviously, the best thing to do is to have more policemen and more of a presence in the areas where there's a problem."

Leaders target Augusta crime