While Columbia County continues to attract new residents, law enforcement in the county and its two cities found a way to reduce the crime that typically accompanies growth by working together.
“That’s something that didn’t happen years ago,” said Grovetown Department of Public Safety Chief Gary Owens.
Representatives from many area law enforcement agencies – including those in Grovetown, Harlem, Richmond, Lincoln and McDuffie counties, CSX Railroad police, Georgia State Patrol, Fort Gordon military police as well as the FBI and Georgia Bureau of Investigation – meet monthly at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office to share information at a collaborative meeting.
“I think that’s probably one of the biggest things we have done in the last year that has helped us tremendously,” Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle said. “We broadened the law enforcement to include everybody around here. It’s these other agencies that have made a huge impact on the Columbia County population’s crime statistics.”
The county’s population grew by more than 7,000 residents from 2011 to 2012, with more than 131,000 people estimated to live in the county at the end of 2012, according the U.S. Census Bureau most recent figures.
In 2013, 1,756 new parcels were created and 317 homes have been built on them, according to county Administrator Scott Johnson.
Whittle said he attributes the accompanying drop in crimes to a multitude of reasons, but largely in part to the effectiveness of sharing information with other agencies as well as many long-standing programs the sheriff’s office runs.
Several areas of crime dropped significantly in 2013. Burglaries decreased 27.3 percent from 396 in 2012 to 288 in 2013. Felony thefts dropped 18.9 percent, from 419 in 2012 to 340 in 2013.
Entering autos and shoplifting decreased by 12.3 percent and 9.9 percent respectively. In 2013, 300 instances of entering autos, 42 more than 2012, were reported. Shoplifting incidents dropped from 383 in 2012 to 345 in 2013.
Part I crimes – major crimes including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and arson –shrunk by 11.7 percent in 2013 from 2,419 in 2012 to 2,137 in 2013. The largest part of those crimes were thefts, 1,796 last year.
Whittle said criminals don’t stop at the county or city boundaries. Each agency brings different pieces of the puzzle to the table and putting them all together makes a bigger picture than one agency can create on its own.
“I may not catch the bad guy in this county, they catch him,” Whittle said. “When (anyone) catches him, he’s not coming back to Columbia County.”
Owens agrees that the sharing of information and resources has made his and other departments more effective.
The number of crime reported in Grovetown dropped 18.41 percent from 956 in 2012 to 780 in 2013.
Even with more than 12,200 city residents in 2012, Part I crimes in Grovetown dropped 21.75 percent from 331 in 2012 to 259 in 2013. The majority of those crimes, like in the county, were thefts – 145.
Narcotics arrests in Grovetown grew by 104 percent, from 21 in 2012 to 43 in 2013. That number is a good thing because it means law enforcement is doing a better job of catching drug dealers.
Owens said he attributes much of the increase to Chico, a drug dog the department added to the roster in June 2012.
The department’s Criminal Investigations Division is also “more progressive in their thinking” and deals with informants differently, participates in undercover narcotics investigations and collaborations with nearby agencies.
“Because we work together, all of our intel is crossing (county and city) lines,” Owens said.
Incidents of juvenile-related crimes also dropped significantly from 40 in 2012 to 16 in 2013.
Owens said he attributes much of that drop to putting Cpl. Robert Eastman in the schools. Though many schools have school system resource officers and the sheriff’s office deputies are in the schools regularly, Eastman “takes the extra step.”
Eastman is greeted in the schools by the children on a first-name basis. He gives high-fives and smiles as he mingles. But he also visits the homes of children he knows are having problems there.
Owens said his department, and Eastman specifically, work in collaboration with the county’s Juvenile Court system and Columbia County Community Connections, which runs a program for children in trouble and their families.
“When you have a problem, you take care of it,” Owens said. “You don’t look the other way because you’re too busy, you have no resources or no manpower.”
It appears that officers in Harlem are making better use of their resources.
Chief Gary Jones has started up numerous new programs since he took over as the Harlem Department of Public Safety in the spring.
The Citizens on patrol program puts volunteers on the street, while the Reserve program uses volunteer law enforcement officers among many other new community and law enforcement programs. The Citizens Advisory Board provides feedback from the public and acts as a liaison between the department and the community.
The total number of calls for service rose slightly, .98 percent, from 2,542 in 2012 to 2,567 in 2013. Calls for service include reported crimes as well as funeral and bank escorts, open doors and windows and 911 hang-ups.
Jones attributes the slightly higher number of calls to the increased rapport with the community and the department’s higher transparency.
“The increased number of calls is probably related, at least to a high degree, to the open communication,” Jones said. “People are now more willing to call and report something suspicious or out of the norm. Whereas, before, they were reluctant.”
Officers are also being more visible, as evidenced by the 72,000 miles they drove on patrol and calls in 2013. That’s more than twice as many miles as they traveled in 2012.
Jones is encouraging them to be more proactive.
“I think the visibility and the communications level between the public itself and the business owners has certainly improved,” Jones said. “When that happens, they report anything suspicious.”
Traffic citations including those for driving without a license or on a suspended license, tag/registration requirements, seat belt violations and equipment violations all increased in 2013.
Citations written for seat belt violations rose 40.7 percent from 216 in 2012 to 304 in 2013 and those written for child restraint violations grew 44.4 percent from 27 in 2012 to 39 last year. Officers wrote 26 citations to drivers with expired licenses in 2013, 24 more than in 2012. Those cited for tag/registration violations increased 39.3 percent from 56 in 2012 to 78 in 2013.
Narcotics arrest were on the rise in 2013 with 15, two more than in 2012.
“We’re using techniques and training officers to be observant and apprehend these folks,” Jones said.
Harlem officers also arrested 22 fugitives in 2013, 17 more than the five apprehended in 2012.
What has dropped in Harlem is property crimes and thefts. After the seven burglaries in the city in 2012, none were reported last year. Burglary attempts and alarms decreased 21.6 percent from 103 in 2012 to 81 in 2013.
Reported thefts, forgeries and shoplifting dropped 57.7 percent in 2013 from 45 to 19. Criminal trespass and damages also decreased 23.3 percent from 30 in 2012 to 23.