On bicycles, horseback, Segways and on foot, police officers will soon be a more common sight downtown, as the Mobile Police Department increases its presence in an area that’s continued to grow as a commercial and residential hub.
In late February, city officials announced MPD would be expanding its downtown central events precinct on Dauphin Street into a full police precinct. For the most part, it will be similar to MPD’s four existing precincts, but with a greater focus on non-vehicular patrols.
The enforcement shift follows a string of high-profile crimes in the downtown area, but while Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson says public safety is a priority, he’s also maintained the need for a stand-alone police precinct in the area is a response to progress, not a reaction to problems.
“Two decades ago, after 5 o’clock in the afternoon, downtown Mobile was a ghost town. Fast-forward to the last two years, and we have continued to see renovated apartments, shops and restaurants popping up in what were abandoned buildings,” Stimpson said. “There’s not a great city without a great downtown, and we want to make sure that everybody who comes here feels absolutely safe about the experience they’re going to have in downtown Mobile.”
Capt. James Cunningham, who was previously the supervisor of central events, assumed the role of commander when the new precinct opened March 2. He said he’s currently working with MPD to build up the staff, but says the number of officers downtown has already increased.
While staffing levels aren’t concrete yet, Cunningham said there will likely be up to 20 additional uniformed officers dedicated to the downtown area. That does not include the officers with MPD’s Mounted Unit that have patrolled downtown on horseback for a number of years.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Cunningham said having increased patrols would allow the department to better respond as the volume of service calls grows with the population.
He said that will also give MPD a more visible presence in the entertainment district and other areas. More than being seen, though, Cunningham said he wants officers working downtown to be a part of the community and to know the residents, the business owners and the patrons.
“We have different assets at our disposal — bikes, Segways, portable cameras, mounted patrols and foot patrols — that allow our focus to be on being highly visible,” Cunningham said. “That can be a deterrent, but it also gives citizens, patrons and business owners the ability to talk and interact with officers in a way they might not with an officer in a patrol car.”
Speaking on the impact crime has on the perception of downtown, Cunningham said “there are very few random acts of violence downtown,” but those that do occur tend to draw a lot of media attention. It’s true that headlines in the past year haven’t always been favorable for downtown.
A sexual assault in broad daylight and an attack at the main branch of the Mobile Public Library were in the local news for weeks in 2018. Then this year, two shootings — one that injured uninvolved bystanders — occurred during the height of Mardi Gras festivities downtown.
Two victims, one of them only 7 years old, were injured during a shooting near Government and Dearborn streets following a parade on the evening of Feb. 23. Two teenage suspects, Tykendrick Barnett and Matthew Isaiah Carl, were arrested the same night and remain in jail.
Days later, two men were shot near the Saenger Theatre after an unknown male opened fire during a fight in the early hours of March 5. No arrests have been made in that case yet.
While Cunningham said Mardi Gras isn’t an ordinary situation downtown, he believes an increased police presence could help prevent similar incidents in the future. With more officers close by, he said it will be easier to address situations before they escalate and become violent.
“Small things can turn into large things quickly — a fight breaks out in a club, then the people leave there and go somewhere else to continue that fight,” Cunningham said. “If you’re involved in that type of altercation, you should be going to jail before it ever spills out into the streets.”
Another issue that’s come up over the past year has been the prevalence of homelessness and panhandling downtown. It’s a challenge for most cities. Cunningham said MPD has no interest in criminalizing homelessness, but added that officers will enforce city laws baring panhandling.
“We will be targeting the individuals committing crimes, and that does include panhandling,” he said. “There are organizations down here like the Salvation Army that are willing to help. There’s not a need for these individuals to panhandle downtown. We’re not going to target homeless individuals, but we will target crimes that they or anybody else may be committing.”
To that end, Cunningham said downtown patrons shouldn’t be concerned an increased police presence will be intrusive to the law-abiding citizens enjoying restaurants, bars and shops in the entertainment district. While MPD will always enforce the law, Cunningham said his units will be primarily focused on those who are dangerous or causing problems for others.
“When you talk about increasing police presence in an entertainment district, one of the first things that comes to some people’s mind is: ‘Well, I can’t go down there and have a drink now,’ but that’s not the goal,” Cunningham said. “The goal is being effective so that when you do come down here and have a drink or go to dinner with your family, you don’t have to worry. There’s a difference between having a good time and not being able to stand up or being out in the street fighting or harassing someone.”
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