Sunday, October 2, 2011

FPAA and SACG Neighborhoods Uniting Against Crime

On Tuesday, I attended the regular monthly meeting of the Franklin Park Area Association and yesterday I attended the monthly block watch meeting. Both meetings discussed ongoing initiatives to improve the safety in the SACG neighborhood and greater near east side.

As an aside, the FPAA will be having its annual pumpkin sale the weekend of October 22-23, 2011. [Editor's note: This has been moved UP a week to October 15-16] This is one of the major fundraisers of the year. Pumpkins cost about half of what is charged in grocery stores. FPAA will again be buying $500 worth of pumpkins (even though they sold out early last year) because they do not want to risk having extra pumpkins at the end of the sale. It was suggested that they also sell refreshments, but they will need other volunteers to staff that booth if they do so.

The main speaker at Tuesday’s meeting was Jonathan Beard from Columbus Compact Corporation on East Main Street. CCC is actively involved in commercial and residential development on the near East Side (several blocks west of the SACG neighborhood). After the City failed to help to address rampant crime on the near East Side, Beard spearheaded a private sector initiative which placed 80 surveillance cameras in the empowerment zone between Parsons and Wilson Avenues along Main Street. The cameras record a massive amount of drug trafficking and have lead to numerous arrests. With video evidence in hand, he has been very successful in obtaining the attention of local government officials to address this problem. The City’s Safety Director has supported aggressive policing to arrest individuals who are observed by the cameras dealing and possessing drugs. Unfortunately, they almost always immediately post bail and return to the streets within 24 -36 hours. Even when convicted, their sentences are usually only 12-18 months, with time off for good behavior, etc. Meanwhile, their co-conspirators, who act as lookouts and bodyguards, are virtually never arrested or searched for drugs. The situation has reached a crisis because these individuals have taken to shooting each other, as well as innocent bystanders (and their homes and businesses). Several of the individuals recently murdered had been arrested and/or convicted and were out on bail or early release at their time of death. In other words, they had been safer in jail than out on the streets. While their crimes have been serious, none of them warranted a death penalty.

Beard is particularly concerned because the crime has adversely affected his ability to improve the City’s near east side with residential and business development. He has been successful in rehabilitating a number of apartments on Main Street, for instance. However, as we know, like many homes in German Village and the Short North, there is no set back for these residential structures from the public sidewalk. In other words, the homes’ front door immediately leads to the public sidewalk. Many of these drug dealers unfortunately hang out on the sidewalk and in bus stops. The residents cannot do anything to keep these individuals from congregating on their front door step. Who wants to live somewhere when there are drug gangs leaning up against your house or apartment and the police won’t chase them away? These dealers have also become shooting targets for other gangs. So, the bullets start flying and hit these homes, sometimes narrowly missing -- or not -- the law-abiding resident inside. Many people living in these newly-rehabbed apartments have to spend their evenings exclusively on the second floor to avoid getting shot in a drive-by shooting. Is that any way to live?

Beard explained some of his frustrations. The City has a criminal ordinance prohibiting loitering in the aid of drug offenses, but it is not being enforced out of concern it that it is unconstitutionally vague (i.e., criminalizes legal behavior). For instance, it arguably criminalizes standing within 100 yards of a drug trafficker while holding a cell phone (which would include many law abiding citizens). The current Ordinance provides as follows:



2317.50 - Loitering in aid of drug offenses.
(A) No person, with purpose to commit or aid the commission of a drug abuse offense, shall loiter in any public place.
(B) For purposes of this section, the term "drug abuse offense" has the same meaning as found in Section 2925.01(H) of the Revised Code. The term
has the same meaning as "controlled substance" as found in Section 3719.01(D) of the Revised Code.
(C) For purposes of this section the term loiter means to resort to, remain, or wander about in an idle manner essentially in one place and shall include the concepts of spending time idly, or sitting, standing or walking about aimlessly.
(D) For purposes of this section, the term "public place" means an area of property, either publicly owned or to which the public has access, and includes but is not limited to streets, alleys, sidewalks, rights of way, bridges, plazas, parks, driveways, parking lots, transportation facilities, or other place open to the public, the doorways, entrances, porches, passageways, and roofs to any such building which fronts on any of the aforesaid places, or motor vehicles in or upon such places.
(E) In determining the purpose of an offender under this section, the Court shall consider all relevant surrounding circumstances, which may include but are not limited to the following factors:
(1) Repeatedly beckon, stop, attempt to stop, or engage passers-by or pedestrians in conversation; or
(2) Repeatedly stop or attempt to stop motor vehicles; or
(3) Repeatedly interfere with the free passage of other persons.
(4) That the person has been convicted or been found delinquent for a drug abuse offense.
(5) That the person is loitering and directing pedestrians or motorists through words, hailing, waving of arms, pointing, signaling or other bodily gestures to a person or premises where controlled substances are possessed or sold.
(6) That the person is loitering and has cordless telephone, cellular telephone, walkie-talkie, or beeper within 100 yards of a person or premises where controlled substances are possessed or sold.
(7) Any statement by the offender.


(G) No arrest shall be made for a violation of this section until the arresting officer first requests and affords such person an opportunity to explain such conduct. No
person shall be convicted if it appears that the explanation rendered is true and the surrounding circumstances disclosed a lawful purpose.
(H) Whoever violates this section is guilty of loitering in aid of drug offenses, a
misdemeanor of the fourth degree. If the offender previously has been convicted of or pleaded guilty to a violation of this section, loitering in aid of drug offenses is guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree.

Faced with the arguably vague ordinance, the police will only arrest the traffickers for unlawful possession and not for assisting the trafficker by acting as a lookout or bodyguard. When presented with video evidence of trafficking, the police have been successful in arresting individuals on East Main Street, taking them back to the police station and then using the video to support a search warrant to find drugs on the trafficker’s person (often stuck in an unsanitary body cavity).

Beard is advocating a several-pronged approach. First, the Loitering Ordinance should be updated to remedy the vagueness issue and make it more expensive for the co-conspirators to support drug trafficking. The General Assembly is currently considering increasing the penalties for drug trafficking. In any event, arresting the co-conspirators and requiring them to post bail and pay fines will at least make it more expensive for them to continue helping their drug trafficker friends. Without an extensive look-out network, the police will be better able to arrest the traffickers.

Last year, after a series of meetings and discussions, almost every City and County Official (including the City Attorney’s office, County Prosecutor’s office, judges and City Council President Ginther) had signed off on improving the Loitering Ordinance so that it could be enforced to benefit law abiding residents. Unfortunately, Councilperson Mills then took over the Safety Committee in January and no progress of any kind has been made since that time. While she has expressed polite concern with the issue, and has said that she and her staff are considering it, she felt that the loitering issue involved mostly “poor choices” and not criminal behavior and saw no urgency to update the Ordinance this year. To be fair, this Ordinance should be carefully drafted to criminalize behavior which is directly related to trafficking and not merely criminalizing being friends, blood relative or social acquaintance with a drug trafficker. Legal concerns and public comments should be invited in upgrading the Ordinance.

[Editor's Note: On October 18, 2011, the Dispatch ran an article about this situation. While the article mentions the unconstitionality of the current ordinance, there is no discussion about steps to amend the ordinance to make it lawful and effective. Council President Ginther is quoted saying that Council has not ignored the problem, and explaining that they simply do "not necessarily agree[] with your approach, recommendations or style." The article does not mention any steps which Council is taking to address the problem, although there was a lot of public fanfare last week about a proposal for the City to pay for graffitti remediation. There was no proposal to stop gangs from spending hours standing and wandering aimlessly in front of businesses and homes and getting themselves and innocent bystanders shot. There was no proposal to publicize a hotline where residents and business owners can call the police about drug traffic loittering with knowledge that the group will be disbanded or arrested by police within minutes of the call.]

Second, Beard advocates a pilot enforcement program that would encompass the area between Parsons Avenue and Alum Creek, Whittier/Frebis and Broad Streets.

Third, Beard would like to see COWIC dedicate at least 20 job training opportunities to individuals in the pilot target area to create economic opportunities for the traffickers other than selling drugs.

Fourth, consideration of aggressive sentencing for chronic and repeat offenders, with extended periods of probation, house arrests with ankle bracelets, no waiving of court costs and fines and stay away orders while on probation. Continuation of aggressive policing in the target enforcement area by better and improved coordination between vice, narcotics and gang units to disrupt open air markets, bootlegs, etc.

Fifth, exploring restorative justice work requirements for the City's Land Bank and civic and business associations affected by the criminal behavior.

Finally, expanding and enhancing the Main Street camera program.

In any event, efforts are underway to unite virtually every social, non-profit, block watch, religious and civic organization in the near east and south sides of Columbus to sign a letter to City Council and other government officials to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the drug trafficking and related violence which has turned a growing number of near-east side and south side neighborhoods into areas as dangerous as any third-world country.

Polite concern does not make it safe for parents to let their children walk down the street to a community garden, which is why I am so invested in this issue.

The FPAA also distributed a video showing the affects of these shootings and the bullet holes in area businesses. Some business operators have simply closed up because they do not feel safe. It is no wonder that there are droves of vacant homes as rational people flea to safer areas, including the suburbs. Unless this is eradicated soon, there will be no taxpayers left living in the near east side.

The FPAA has created a facebook page for all of the FPAA blockwatches (including ours, Morrison Hill and Fairwood). The FPAA also encourages anyway to review updated crime statistics at http://www.crimereports.com/.

To protect the investment in their homes from criminal activity (including illegal dumping in the alley between Stoddart and Morrison), the FPAA block watch has purchased two video cameras for the SACG neighborhood. They are currently operational. In the very near future, four signs will be installed (purchased without the benefit of any grant funds out of the personal finances of a SACG area resident) advising drivers that the Stoddart Avenue neighborhood is under 24 hour video surveillance. It still bothers me that we do not have any suspects for the murders which occurred next to the SACG in August last year and March of this year. With video cameras, we hopefully will be able to help the police identify suspects in any future shootings or other crimes. Anyone living near the SACG should notify the block watch if they experience criminal activity so that the block watch leaders can review the videos to find potential suspects.

We are also planning to seek additional grant funding to purchase three additional cameras for the Morrison, Stoddart and Fairwood neighborhoods. There have been a number of break-ins in the past few months and, again, no suspects or witnesses. Unfortunately, good cameras tend to cost about $1,000/each (not including installation and operational costs) and we do not have $80K, which is what CCC has spent on its effective video surveillance program in the neighborhoods west of the SACG.

Last weekend, someone broke into the "eyesore" buildings next to the SACG and busted a side door (which rendered the building accessible to anyone and everyone). Both Barb and I reported it promptly to the City Land Bank and the door was repaired within two days.

The FPAA will be meeting again on October 25 in the lower level of the Franklin Park Conservatory at 7:00 p.m. Police Liaison Officer Theresa Kalous will be the featured speaker and will discuss the local Healthy Communities Initiative.

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