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Community gearing up for patrols on Eastside

Where is the City?
Warwick Jones

It was intended to just be another meeting in preparation for citizen patrols on the Eastside. But it turned out to be more. Citizen patrols may be the most serious of initiatives attempted in recent years to reduce crime in this blighted area of the Peninsula. The County authorities have risen to the occasion and promised substantial support, not only with equipment, but with personnel from the Sheriffs Department. But the question last night was - where is the City of Charleston? Is it really committed? The Mayor has talked big about his effort to fight crime, particularly last week with a TV appearance. But his response to the citizens engaged in this battle has been silence.

We think the Mayor and Council should do all they can to to help this grass-root, citizen-led effort to rid the Eastside of drugs. The Mayor's silence may encourage the thought that the City has its own agenda and disinterested in contributing to the success of the effort underway.

Two City Council members were present at the meeting and they promised to pressure the Mayor. They did not attempt to answer the question as to why the City had been silent. But they were clearly uncomfortable with the indifference shown by the City administration. And some of the volunteers were incensed.

Patrols planned to begin next month
The initiative for citizen patrols has been led by Council members Darby, Mitchell and Pryor. Last night's meeting was the 4th of a series with the object to raise volunteers, plan and prepare for citizen patrols. Although not firmly set, the organizers hope to begin patrols on October 9. The start up is to be preceded with a march through the Eastside signaling the intent of the movement.

More volunteers needed
Like most new initiatives, progress has been uneven. And although there have been successes, there have been disappointments. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the limited number of African American males that have stepped forward to volunteer their participation in the patrols. The organizers were hoping for at least 100. The reality is only 25, with only about 5 from the Eastside. Council member Pryor was clearly disappointed with this turnout and said that he will give the patrols his "best shot" but if the community showed little interest, he was no going to persevere. In varying degrees, his views were echoed by others at the meeting.

Stepped up recruiting effort
In defending the lower-than-hoped-for turnout, some at last night's meeting suggested that the effort was not sufficiently advertised. The meeting agreed to appoint 2 people to more aggressively make a recruiting effort particularly amongst the black churches. A member of Pastors Inc - a non profit group working on the Eastside - was "volunteered" to contact that churches that made up his group. And then there were some things said about pastors and clergy of Eastside churches which we summarize nicely but not accurately as suggesting they need to do more for the community than just preach on Sunday.

The issue was raised as to whether 25 volunteers were sufficient to begin a meaningful effort. There was no vote but it seems most thought that it was sufficient. And it was also suggested that perhaps some potential volunteers were hanging back because of skepticism about success. Once patrols start and local folk saw that it was a serious effort, there would probably be a lot more folk wanting to volunteer.

Sheriff Department very supportive
Chief Lucas of the County Sheriffs Department spoke first at last night's discussion. He did not have answers to everybody's questions only because the answer depended on the nature and timing of the patrols. But in broad terms he signaled that the Sheriff Department's full support. He emphasized that the initiative is new for him too. He asked those on patrol to use caution, gave some examples of situations to avoid and to urged a call for the police in any threatening situation. His department would provide special patrol cars and back up to the citizen patrols. He did not commit to a specific number of patrol cars but 3 patrol cars were mentioned in subsequent discussion. He also said that he wanted to work in cooperation with City police and in no way wanted to take over their role in the area.

The Chief suggested that the new station on Aiken Street be used as the locus for operations. It is manned 24/7 and there will be a person there whose job will be to liaise with citizen patrols and the police. Council member Darby agreed but also noted that the Pastors building on Columbus Street had also been made available as a base. Later in the meeting there was discussion about the mode of communication - radios or cells phones. These details remain to be settled. But that there was no issue - what worked best for the participants would be used.

Maximum effort in first 2 weeks
The number of groups that should be formed from the personnel, the number in each group, the routes and the frequency of the patrols all came up for some discussion, though nothing was decided. But it did seem that all agreed the effort should be at a maximum in the first 2 weeks, for both the citizen patrols and police support. Council member Darby thought that if the initiative were successful, most of the success would be achieved in this period. One presumes that if most of the dealers move elsewhere or closed down in this period, it will require more "maintenance style" patrols thereafter, and not so demanding on volunteers and police.

Reiteration of strategy
County Council member Darby also reiterated the strategy of the patrols. The purpose was to close down drug dealing on the Eastside. The concentration would not be on the drug dealers but the customers. The citizen patrols would be looking for drug deals and would alert police to any they see. They would give a description of the participants to the extent they can. But the focus will be on the customers. Either by way of a threat of legal action, or revelation of the drug pursuit to the family, employer, college or whoever, customers should be driven off. The patrols will also record license plate numbers of cars seen cruising in the area. These will be supplied to the police and checked against central records. If the car's owner has an address outside the Eastside and the car is seen frequently, it may be stopped by police and searched. This too should be a deterrent to potential customers. And logically, if there are no customers, there will be no dealing.

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