The post-pandemic geographic realignment has been good for Columbus, Ohio. The Buckeye State capital recently secured a $20 billion deal with Intel to host a semiconductor plant, and Chipotle just opened a 130,000-square-foot corporate office for 400 employees in the city’s Arena District. Columbus’s amenities, low cost of living, and growing economy have prompted Ohio State geographer Kevin Cox to label it an honorary Sun Belt city.
But rising crime is a looming problem. The city finished 2021 with an all-time high of 204 homicides, and 21 of the victims were children. Meantime, a federal investigation into mail and check theft has identified the city as a hot spot for the intricate criminal process that entails stealing checks from vans or mailboxes and uploading them on the dark web for sale. Crime in Columbus may be low compared with nearby cities, but its leaders should ensure that this white-collar city—which has traditionally avoided the trouble experienced by its post-industrial neighbors—doesn’t become another midwestern town undone by violence.
Law enforcement has been proactive in tackling certain quality-of-life issues. In January, officials announced the launch of “Operation Broken Windows,” an initiative to reduce the number of shabby abandoned vehicles, which motivated 11,000 phone calls to Columbus’s 311 line in 2021 alone. Neighbors in the affected areas are already cheering the results.
But as the murders and mailbox lootings show, the police department has bigger problems that some say it’s unprepared to tackle. The department is understaffed, with many officers walking off the job following a series of tense protests in the summer of 2020. A buyout program offered up to 100 experienced cops $200,000 in cash, in addition to their pensions, to retire. “Patrol is hemorrhaging,” Jeff Simpson, a police-union leader, recently told the Columbus Dispatch. “They don’t have the bodies.”
The city’s new police chief, Elaine Bryant, has been the subject of controversy. Local conservative blogger Tom Sussi cited anonymous sources alleging that Bryant planned to reduce the department’s property-crimes unit, which investigates car thefts and business break-ins, from approximately 45 to 10 detectives. “We are talking about 60,000 property crimes last year, and according to the Chief, those victims don’t care,” a source said, pointing to a working document from police leadership leaked to lower-ranking personnel. Union leader Simpson defended Bryant, arguing that she inherited the personnel crisis and has been working to find creative solutions. Still, he said, the police would likely emphasize violent crime over non-injury incidents. “Everybody’s important and every crime is important, but we’re being forced to prioritize,” Simpson told the Dispatch. “Right now, you’ve got a lot of homicides and violent crime.”
Stopping violent crimes is essential, but doing so at the expense of property-crime enforcement is a choice. Michael Aaron, executive director of the Rickenbacker Woods Foundation and a local advocate, told the Dispatch that “quality of life” crimes such as car thefts and drug dealing would receive less attention. “The people dealing with the traffic of drugs and people going in and out of certain buildings, it’s a dangerous situation,” Aaron said. “The opportunity for violence to occur is definitely heightened.” For their part, Columbus police say that no changes are final, and that the department hopes to recruit approximately 170 new officers in the year 2022 to fill personnel holes.
The stakes are high. Urbanist Aaron Renn recently observed that “no city in the Midwest is better poised to make the transition to national, not just regional star” than Columbus. That’s true—but with children perishing in gruesome executions and local businesses suffering from mail theft, city leaders have serious problems to fix. They must act quickly to recruit policing talent and reduce crime if Columbus’s promising future is to materialize.
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