by Max Marbut
Law enforcement, like just about every other service, has gone through major changes in recent years thanks to advances in technology. These days, cell phone calls can be traced. Every squad car has a computer linked to national crime information databases. DNA evidence can help track down criminals years after a crime has been committed.
When the merchants and property owners around Hemming Plaza made it clear they needed a solution to the trespassing, vagrancy and public health issues in the area, the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office could have considered a high-tech, 21st-century solution like a phalanx of security cameras that could keep an eye on things.
Instead, the JSO put in place a solution that is unquestionably low-tech, but one that has worked for as long as there has been organized law enforcement anywhere in the world: police officers on patrol, walking the beat and getting to know everyone in the neighborhood.
For the past several weeks, there have been police cars parked around the plaza’s perimeter and officers patrolling on foot in and around the park and adjacent blocks.
The merchants have been impressed by the results.
“It’s like night and day and getting better every week,” said Juan Gonzalez, who has owned Hemming Plaza Jewelers for four years.
“People feel safer now. There are a lot fewer vagrants and aggressive panhandlers and my customers – both people who work Downtown and my customers who come here just to shop – tell me they have noticed the difference.”
Gonzalez said the improvement has had a positive impact not only on his weekday business, but also during special events.
“I have noticed people are more comfortable on Art Walk night,” he said.
It’s not just the traditional brick-and-mortar businesses that have noticed the improvement.
John Chlebo owns Dogs and More and sells hot-dogs for the work-week lunch crowd. He said since the JSO started the foot patrol, his business has increased.
“More people come to the park for lunch now than before. We don’t have vagrants panhandling and asking for food and there is a lot less drinking in the park. When the police cars are here, they won’t do it. When people see the police, they know this is not the place to break the law.”
Like Hemming Plaza Jewelers, the UPS Store is in the block of Hogan Street, south of the plaza. Co-owner Vikki Wilkins said the JSO’s efforts have improved her business as well.
“It used to be scary around here with the drinking and loud behavior. All I can say is it has absolutely made a difference,” she said.
Wilkins also said the signs posted in the plaza making it clear the park was closed after sunset have helped reduce nuisance crime.
“That allowed the JSO to do their job. It’s not so spooky around here at night any more.”
The positive effects of foot patrols have extended all the way around the corner and down Adams Street, according to Shugar Shack owner Suzanne Marino, who said she used to get negative feedback from her customers on a regular basis.
“We see a lot less transients on the block than we did before they cleaned up Hemming Plaza. The public health issues are greatly diminished and my customers don’t complain like they did a few months ago,” she said.
The owner of Boomtown restaurant on the south end of the plaza, Stephen Dare, has been one of the most vocal business people when it comes to calling for more security Downtown. He said the improvement at Hemming Plaza is like nothing he has ever seen.
“I’ve been Downtown for 22 years. This is the first time Hemming Plaza has been full of life. This JSO program has had more impact on Downtown than $400 million worth of infrastructure improvements.”
While not a business in the conventional sense, the Main Library is one of the big attractions at Hemming Plaza and brings thousands of people to the area each week.
Mike Sigler, the library’s security supervisor, said, “The JSO has done a great job. They are not just driving around. They’re on the sidewalk and going into the businesses to get to know people. I probably know 20 officers by name.”
Officer Wally Butler said that’s exactly why the low-tech solution is working at Hemming Plaza.
“What many people don’t realize is that the JSO handles more than one million calls per year. That’s a service call every 60 seconds 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it’s everything from needing the SWAT team to just needing an officer to investigate. What we’re doing here is building relationships with a quality management concept. We know the people because we see them every day.”
Sigler said keeping an eye on activities at Hemming Plaza has become a two-way street. The JSO is helping the merchants and they, in turn, are helping the police.
“We’re the JSO’s eyes and ears on the street. When we see something that just doesn’t look right, we let them know and since they are already here, the response time is minimal.”
Wilkins agreed and said she believes, “The Downtown community has to pull together to make things better. This really feels like a team effort.”