Residents Suggest Ways to Reduce Violence in Douglass Park

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COLUMBIA - A slew of violent crimes near Douglass Park have prompted the community to take action over the past two years.

In March 2012, a fatal shooting claimed the life of 17-year-old DeAudre Orlando Johnson. A month later, shots rang out once again, leaving behind seven bullet casings, but no injuries. On April 25, 2012, community members and Columbia Parks and Recreation met to discuss park safety, including the implementation of the park's current evening foot patrol. Despite a new patrol starrting in May 2012, a shooting injured four teenagers near Douglass High School a month later. Following the June 2012 shooting, there no reports of shots fired at or near Douglass Park for more than a year. Then, on August 21 of this year, the 14-month streak ended. Columbia Police responded to a shots fired incident that evening. Officers found more than five shell casings littered throughout the park, but no one was reported injured. 

Despite a yearlong lull in shootings, many other violent crimes were reported. In the past year, there have been 41 reported violent crimes within a quarter-mile of the park. These incidents include 31 assaults, three robberies and seven instances of aggravated assault.Violent crime within a quarter-mile of Douglass Park (courtesy of raidsonline.com)

Fourteen-year-old M.J. Barney visits the park several times each week to play basketball. He said alcohol is a problem in the park, "Drunk people walk by everyday. They act drunk, too, so you know they're drunk. You can smell it on their breath."

Barney said alcohol fuels arguments between park visitors and he thinks a ban would make it a safer place to hang out, "Since it's legal here, definitely here, cause a lot of people drink here over in the shelters."

However, other community members do not think a ban would decrease violent crime. University of Missouri student Will Schmitt also visits the park several days a week to shoot hoops. Schmitt offers up a different solution to decreasing crime, "If this place is kept clean, if the trash cans are maintained, if there are no littering signs posted around here, if people are aware that, you know, ‘Keep the park clean,' people will act better, people will be nicer, people will treat each other better and live better. The park will be better."

Earlier this year, First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt proposed an alcohol ban in Douglass Park, "So after some back and forth with some people in the neighborhood, I guess I want to look into an ordinance, which will start public debate about this." The proposal received fierce opposition from the former president of Keep Columbia Free, Mark Flakne.

Flakne condemned Schmidt on the Keep Columbia Free blog, saying he was targeting Columbia's African American community. The organization's current treasurer, Christopher White, agrees with Flakne. He said alcohol is not the issue, "I think it's because of the people who are involved, not the alcohol consumption. I don't think, just by the nature of alcohol being consumed by a person, they would commit more crimes."

Regardless of a ban, Columbia Parks and Recreation rangers and Columbia Police officers will continue patrolling. Gabe Huffington, park services manager, said two park rangers are responsible for patrolling the city's 70 parks from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. However, two police officers and additional security officers conduct foot patrols throughout Douglass Park during closed hours. Huffington said the Columbia Police Department and Columbia Parks and Recreation have fostered a good relationship, "We have to work hand-in-hand, in terms of making sure that public safety and that our parks are safe. We wouldn't be able to have the reputation we have, in terms of safety and in terms of public awareness, if it wasn't for the Columbia Police Department."

One resident said officers should reach out to park visitors, suggesting it could ease tension. Other park visitors also welcome the efforts, saying their hope is that the increased presence would help decrease violence.

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