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Crime numbers falling in Columbia County

Working with residents has reduced crime

Posted: March 6, 2013 - 12:04am
Sgt. Nate Olson, of the Grovetown Department of Public Safety, checks in with business owner Diane Wilson at Frank Wilson Equipment Center. Area law enforcement agencies say such efforts as routine checks on local businesses have helped lower crime rates.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
Sgt. Nate Olson, of the Grovetown Department of Public Safety, checks in with business owner Diane Wilson at Frank Wilson Equipment Center. Area law enforcement agencies say such efforts as routine checks on local businesses have helped lower crime rates.

Collaboration is a common theme in Columbia County law enforcement.

Officials largely credit a working relationship with residents and law enforcement agencies for the sharp drop in reported crimes in 2012.

“This was the best they’ve ever been since I was sheriff,” said Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle, who took over as the county’s lead lawman after a 1995 special election.

The overall crime rate fell 4.6 percent from 5,240 reported crimes in 2011 to 4,999 in 2012. Part I crimes – murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and arson – dropped 5 percent.

Several factors contributed to the decrease, including the House Watch program, directed patrols and collaboration with residents to prevent crime, Whittle said.

“There’s a serious partnership with our community,” Whittle said. “You go to some places and people look at certain crimes and just chalk it up. But people don’t do that here in Columbia County. They go, ‘uh-uh – not in Columbia County – I’m calling the sheriff. And I love that.”

Grovetown also experienced a reduction in reported crime, by 9.96 percent – from 1,104 in 2011 to 994 in 2012. Echoing Whittle, Grovetown Department of Public Safety Director Gary Owens, who took over as chief in June, attributed the improvement to city residents’ willingness to step up.

“The city is growing, growing in a positive way,” Owens said. “You’re getting residents calling about crimes, concerned about suspicious activity.”

The Harlem Police Department also responded to fewer calls, 2,796 calls for service, in 2012. That’s 9.08 percent fewer than in 2011. Those numbers include all calls for service including reported crimes, as well as complaints about barking dogs and suspicious activity and requests including escorts and welfare checks.

Chief David Sward said his officers also are checking businesses nightly, patrolling the city neighborhoods more and engaging residents.

“I’ve told the officers to get out and be more sociable, have more contacts with the residents as opposed to just driving by and waving. Be more interactive,” Sward said. “There’s no barrier between the officer and the citizens.”

Whittle said the measure of a law enforcement agency is its crime statistics, and admits his fear is the numbers rising.

Thefts and burglaries have the greatest effect on a community’s sense of security, he said.

“When somebody’s house is broken into, it’s like you’ve been violated,” Whittle said. “You come home, your house has been ransacked, and you realize – ‘Some S.O.B. has been in my house.’ It makes you feel vulnerable.”

Burglaries dropped 13.2 percent from 456 in 2011 to 396 in 2012. Thefts also dropped by 2.1 percent, or 41, to 1,948 in 2012. He attributes the decrease in burglaries to directed patrols. Instead of deputies riding “random beats,” they monitor areas guided by statistical trends developed from incident reports. That’s also the approach they’re using in battling a growing, but still small, number of robberies around the Interstate 20-Belair Road interchange.

Larcenies rose in Grove­town from 157 felony cases in 2011 to 192 in 2012. Owens said thefts rise as the economy worsens, and he expects that to drop as the economy recovers. Robberies dropped from six in 2011 to three last year. The number of reported assaults sharply dropped, 65.1 percent, from 89 reports in 2011 to 31 in 2012.

In Harlem, the department received 103 calls reporting burglary attempts or alarms, up 24 percent from 83 in 2011. There were no reported robberies, seven burglaries compared to six in 2011, and 45 thefts.

Owens said the purchase and training of a canine helped nab more motorists with drugs in the city.

Another tool county law enforcement is making good use of is each other. Collaborating and sharing information is making catching criminals and preventing crime easier.

“Crime doesn’t stop at the city limits,” Owens said. “If you work together, you can accomplish a whole lot more.”

Whittle said his agency is seeing results from greater cooperation with the two city public safety departments and other area law enforcement agencies who sit in once a month at a sheriffs office command staff meeting. In addition to Grovetown and Harlem officials, the meeting typically includes representatives from the Columbia County school public safety department, Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Thomson and McDuffie County, Georgia State Patrol, and agencies such as the FBI, NSA Treasury Department and CSX Railroad Police.

“When we do that one, we have a crowd here,” Whittle said. “It’s been fantastic. The collaboration has been awesome – folks are collaborating against the bad guy.

“That’s been a huge success, and it’s helping everybody.”

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