What we have Downtown is a failure to communicate.
A paraphrase of that famous line from “Cool Hand Luke” came to mind following a 90-minute meeting of Downtown Vision.
Lack of information and erroneous perceptions still plague Downtown. Frankly, the entire Downtown community deserves a Thumbs down for allowing this to linger.
The meeting started with Sheriff Mike Williams providing an overview of crime in Jacksonville. In many metrics countywide, crime is down with the exception of gang-related drug violence that basically involves about 1,000 young men.
“This is not an easy task,” Williams said and no single solution will work. It will take the entire community to address the root causes of the drug violence. The police only get involved in treating symptoms.
Williams noted that Downtown is unique in that its population surges during the workday and special events.
But too many people Downtown aren’t calling the police with reports. More calls for service lead to more officers being assigned. Fewer calls, more officers.
Williams and his Downtown zone commander, Jimmy Judge, encouraged citizens to call and to attend the monthly Sheriff’s Watch meetings the third Wednesday of the month at 11 a.m. at the Main Library. Those meetings normally are sparsely attended, yet they provide Downtown residents and business owners with a chance to air their concerns directly to JSO leaders like Judge. Feedback and accountability are part of the system of Sheriff’s Watch.
“We’re not going to be successful at all if we don’t have that partnership,” Williams said.
Can you believe it? A longtime business owner in the audience had never even heard of Sheriff’s Watch. Another communication breakdown.
So far as serious crime goes, Downtown is one of the safest neighborhoods in Jacksonville. But safety needs to be interpreted more broadly, and that’s another failure of communication.
There are nuisances Downtown: Panhandlers, transients, homeless, people with mental issues. In fact, a new trend is for panhandlers to enter restaurants and bother customers.
Williams said he would like more police presence Downtown. In New York City and Charlotte, Williams observed officers on practically every street corner.
“You’ve got to fight the perception that Downtown is not a safe place,” Williams said. “Nothing makes people feel safer than seeing a police officer.”
Frankly, that seems a waste of trained manpower if there are no serious crimes. That’s why the Downtown zone commander has a hard time competing for more staff against areas with far more serious crimes.
A better option would be to provide the private security like the kind used at Hemming Park or use Community Service Officers from JSO.
People feel more secure when there is an officer in sight.
There are about 300 people Downtown who causing most of the nuisances. But they often have nowhere to go. Even if a person is arrested for a nuisance-related crime, he will be right on the street in short order.
In setting up parks Downtown, planners are in a bind.
“You want ease of access,” Williams said, "but you also don’t want a campground.”
Right now transients are hanging out in a park area under the Main Street Bridge. That is scheduled to be renovated and fenced off starting in November. Where will those people go? The fear is they will start getting in the way Downtown.
Meanwhile, police officers at the quarterly meeting learned of areas that could be improved, which again showed a lack of communication. Such concerns ought to be routine or shared at Sheriff’s Watch meetings.
One citizen noted that bicycle officers disappear in an office at The Jacksonville Landing. What’s that about? Judge said that is a bicycle locker, not a substation, but he said that the shifts of the bicycle officers are being changed to make them more visible.
Another complaint involved seeing nine police cruisers at Water and Hogan streets, but no police officers visible. The multiple police cruisers raised concerns that something serious was going on.
Downtown still needs better communication among all of its stakeholders.