As downtown property owners are asked to pay extra for heightened security, they might question why the resources aren’t there already.
The Augusta Chronicle analyzed Richmond County Sheriff’s Office incident reports of violent crimes during a two-year period ending in May, when a South Carolina couple was brutally beaten and robbed during a late-night visit to Riverwalk Augusta.
Within the central business district – an emergency response area bounded by Fourth and 15th streets and by Walton Way and the Savannah River – incidents of violent crime ranked third-highest among the sheriff’s 48 response areas, behind Richmond Hill and the public housing complexes, the data showed.
Even so, city officials said the frequency shouldn’t scare away visitors.
“Every 10 days you have a violent crime,” said city Administrator Fred Russell, a former deputy police chief in Richmond, Va. In Richmond, similar in size to Augusta, crime was much worse, he said.
Augusta’s central business district had 80 violent crimes during the two-year period, fewer than one a week.
Most of those crimes, 56, involved robberies, such as the May 3 armed robbery of the South Carolina couple that was brutally beaten. The downtown area tied Richmond Hill for the highest number of robberies in any single emergency response area.
During the period, the downtown area also had 18 aggravated assaults, two carjackings, one homicide and three reports of reckless conduct.
Sheriff Richard Roundtree didn’t dispute the findings but questioned whether the district, which is defined by law enforcement and recorded by officers who create incident reports, was the same area that visitors think of as “downtown,” basically a square bordered by Greene Street, the Savannah River, and Fifth and 13th streets.
All but eight of the crimes, however, took place in that much smaller area, which encompasses the bulk of downtown’s main entertainment district.
Augusta Commission member Bill Fennoy, whose District 1 covers downtown, tied the crime reports to “high concentrations of people,” particularly at night. He said he doesn’t feel unsafe downtown.
“I ride my bicycle all over downtown, and sometimes I don’t get back in until 8:30 or 9 p.m. at night, and I don’t feel threatened,” he said. “I just don’t feel that it’s an unsafe area.”
Crime reports might prompt naysayers to complain, but the crimes actually aren’t scaring away visitors, who continue to increase in number, said Coco Rubio, who owns The Soul Bar and Sky City, two Broad Street music venues.
“To me, it’s like, what did people expect when you have a lot of people coming downtown?” he said. “That’s kind of proof to me that there are a lot of people downtown, that there’s a lot of activity downtown.”
Still, a visible police presence is necessary to prevent crime, particularly at night as bars are closing, Rubio said.
“I appreciate that, and I think again, with the amount of people that I see out every weekend, there’s relatively few incidents,” he said.
Since the riverfront mugging and a subsequent Broad Street brawl viewed widely online, Roundtree has dedicated two bicycle officers and a motor deputy to downtown. He is also pitching an extra 6-mill levy on certain property owners, those inside the former Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative district, to fund six more law enforcement officers.
Roundtree, who took office in January, said he is starting to implement “intelligence-based policing” to steer resources where and when they are most needed, based on crime trends.
Crime is detrimental to the area’s growth, particularly as the city has invested millions in public funding – both 25 years ago in the riverwalk and more recently at the Augusta Convention Center, said Barry White, the executive director of the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Safety is key to any successful destination,” White said. “I’m not sure it’s possible to be too safe, or too clean.”
In Atlanta, the police department recently dedicated 15 officers to patrol the six-mile Atlanta Beltline after several high-profile crimes tainted the biking and pedestrian trail for visitors, according to a July 26 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Path Force Unit is funded by a $1.8 million federal grant.
Roundtree is pitching the added tax as a way to pay for six additional officers in conjunction with a separately funded plan to install security cameras as part of a comprehensive plan to keep downtown safe.
Most, but not all, downtown property owners contacted opposed the extra tax, which wouldn’t go into effect until next year, but, if approved, could allow the sheriff’s office to borrow money in anticipation of next year’s collections. The sheriff began meeting with property owners Thursday to pitch his proposal.