The new Safety Management and Response Team (SMART) Unit made up of community safety officers and sheriff’s deputies officially hit the street in late May with the hopes of creating a safer environment downtown.
“I think it’s good,” said Coco Rubio, who owns two downtown music venues, Sky City and The Soul Bar. “It’s something we needed down here and should have had down here.”
In the unit’s first month, it issued 44 citations for disorderly conduct, which includes panhandling. Statistics from the first month also show overall crime in the downtown business district down 33 percent and violent crimes down 86 percent. Non-residential burglaries dropped to zero from four the previous month.
“I think the presence alone provides deterrents to people who would want to cause problems,” said Kimberly Beasley, who owns Curvitude Boutique at 908 Broad St.
Sheriff Richard Roundtree presented his plans for a safer downtown to the Augusta Commission last July in the aftermath of the brutal beating of Ashley Solesbee and Wesley Spires on Riverwalk Augusta. Although the attack outraged the community, downtown businesses owners maintained that the area was safe but acknowledged there was a perception it wasn’t.
An Augusta Chronicle analysis of serious crimes showed at the time only about 2 percent of all serious crimes committed countywide occurred in the downtown business district.
Roundtree presented three ideas: closing the riverwalk from 11 p.m. to sunrise between Fifth and Ninth streets, installing 32 security cameras and establishing a special tax district to fund six additional officers to work downtown.
The commission approved the plan a week later, but most of the changes have not occurred. The cameras, for instance, were part of a penny sales-tax package that did not pass.
In April, the sheriff unveiled his plans for the SMART unit, which would give additional coverage to areas between Greene Street and the river and Fifth and 13th streets using existing personnel.
The unit consists of four deputies working in pairs to provide 20 hours of coverage through the early morning, and two community service officers who work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, in addition to the normally assigned officers to that zone.
Community safety officers are not certified and lack arrest powers but serve as the eyes and ears of the sheriff’s office.
The team, whose members dress in highly visible fluorescent yellow shirts, patrols the streets in cars, bicycles, Segways, golf carts, Mule ATVs and on foot.
“We’ve gotten to know all the business owners and have all their emergency numbers,” said Elfie Hayes, a community safety officer. “We go in and visit with them almost every day.”
Jennifer Tutt, the owner of Sit A Spell Coffee Shop, said the unit frequents her shop to get to know her, her customers and what “normal” activity looks like there.
“It’s so much more personable than a deputy just passing by,” she said.
Deputy William Mundy said authorities have gotten more tips because of the increased police presence, which has helped decrease nuisance behaviors such as aggressive panhandling, which some business owners said lost them business.
In addition to the SMART unit, Roundtree implemented a new plan about a month ago that eliminated the department’s 35 beats in favor of a zone model, which is more data driven. The changes resulted in more deputies not involved with the SMART unit expected to be placed in the downtown area.
Sgt. Michael McDaniel said the sheriff’s office is expecting positive results from that change.