Columbus police look for input

A town meeting held by the Columbus Division of Police on Oct. 23 was intended to be way to “keep the lines of communication open between the public and the division,” said Sgt. Rich Weiner, communications director for the department.

It turned into a mud-slinging contest for Columbus residents.

At the meeting, Chief of Police James Jackson, along with his executive staff, commanders and community liaison officers, planned to gather ideas for approximately $180,000 in seizure money.

According to Weiner, the money has been used for public service announcements, drug education and anti-drug campaigns in the past. The department is looking for suggestions of additional ways the money can be spent towards the fight against drugs.

Weiner opened the floor to the public for comments, and the next 90 minutes were mostly absorbed by those wishing to launch complaints against specific officers and the department in general.

Jackson heard complaints regarding response time, demeanor and the level of care police officers have for their precincts. Most of those comments were regarding specific incidents.

Patrol West Deputy Chief Stephen Gammill said that while it is difficult to address individual situations without knowledge of that incident, he could offer some advice to citizens.

Gammill advised residents who are unhappy with services provided by officers to call Internal Affairs and report the incident. An Internal Affairs officer will guide complianing party through the process and all complaints will be investigated, followed by the proper course of action.

“We review all of those. We will take action,” said Gammill.

“As managers, we can only do something about an incident if we know about it. On the other hand, when the officers come out and do something right, call that same number and let us know. It seems people only call when something is wrong,” said Support Services Deputy Chief Gary Thatcher.

Residents can contact the Columbus Division of Police Internal Affairs Unit by call 645-4745.

Most resident complaints had to do with the department’s problems of understaffing.

While Jackson agreed that the department is experiencing an extreme lack of manpower, he made it clear that this money will not be used to remedy that problem.

“We will not be using that money for recruitment,” said Jackson. “That is the responsibility of the city. We agree with you that we need more officers. That is something that is the responsibility of council.”

Jackson added that the only plans the department has in place for hiring is that they may hire an additional 50 officers at the end of the year.

“The thing that saves this city with our understaffing is the quality of the officers on the street. Our officers out there are doing a tremendous job. Please thank them when you see them,” added Gammill.

A few residents in attendance shared ideas regarding drug education.

Several residents from Old Towne East expressed their desire for additional bicycle and foot patrols.

“We agree that those are valuable,” said Patrol East Deputy Chief John Rockwell, “but right now we are strapped for manpower and a cruiser can cover a lot more area and can do a lot more. We want to keep those cruisers filled.”

Karen Lorenz, founder of Westgate Blockwatch, suggested that the money be used to help buy supplies for blockwatches.

“I know everybody wants money, but blockwatches are very effective,” she said.

Several residents had complaints regarding teenagers out after curfew, sighting this as a major source of neighborhood drugs and crime.

Officers responded that this is a difficult situation to address, because there is no place to take those juveniles breaking curfew.

“The only thing we can do is take them home. That is as exercise of futility at times, because we assume that the parents are responsible,” said Rockwell.

He explained that if officers take an offender home and parents or guardians are not there, then the officers are left virtually “babysitting” these offenders, because they have no place else to take them.

“Go to city council. If they build the facilities, we will come,” responded Gammill when a resident asked if a facility to house teens out after curfew would be an effective solution.

While no decision has been reached regarding how the seizure money will be spent, Jackson explained that all comments from the night were recorded, and will be listened to again and discussed at length before any decisions are made.

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