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Meeting gets input on crime downtown

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Police Chief Mark Holtzman speaks about the incident that occurred at Academy Sport on Jan. 2, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Greenville police and business leaders pledged during a gathering on Tuesday afternoon to continue efforts to address violent crime in the downtown area.

Nearly 50 people — including bar and restaurant owners, property owners, government officials and residents — met in Sheppard Memorial Library to discuss the Nighttime Economy Safety Team. It’s an initiative designed to improve safety and make Greenville a place people want to live, said Bianca Shoneman, executive director of Uptown Greenville.

NEST, which started as a meeting between business leaders and Greenville police and city officials, was a response to a jump in violent crime in the downtown area this year, which included the stabbing death of a 22-year-old Winterville man at the corner of Evans and Fifth streets on Oct. 13 and a shooting involving police that wounded two bystanders and killed a man who was firing a gun at Fifth and Reade streets.

Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman outlined his department’s efforts to increase safety in the area. Two East Carolina University researchers also presented data on alcohol use behavior among downtown bar and nightclub patrons.

Two club owners at Tuesday’s meeting praised the police department’s patrol efforts but urged citizens to keep reports of violent crime in prospective.

“There is a definite legitimate concern (about crime) in Greenville in general, not just in downtown but Greenville in general, in Pitt County,” said Phil Streigold, owner of The Way nightclub. He has worked in the downtown Greenville club scene since the 1990s.

“It boils down to collaboration with the city, doing what needs to be done to have a safe and secure environment.”

There has been a stigma from the past about violence related to clubs, but the city has work to head it off, they said.

“I feel like a lot of times when things happen downtown it gets scrutinized more than any other part of the city,” said Shariff Hatoum, who has owned the Stilllife nightclub for 13 years.

“You need to have a nightlife to have a vibrant community to attract young professionals. If you don’t have a vibrant nightlife, a safe nightlife, you’re not going to retain anybody,” Hatoum said.

New housing developments, more restaurants and other businesses has brought new life and interest to the downtown area and that will keep crime away, Hatoum said.

“Obviously we have slip ups sometimes but it’s not just limited to downtown,” he said.

Between 2012 and 2017, violent crime in area identified as the Uptown District declined 37 percent, with total crime dropping 44 percent, Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman said. There were 32 violent crimes — homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — in 2012 and 12 in 2017.

But between Jan. 1 and Oct. 30, violent crime increased 50 percent, rising from 12 incidents in 2017 to 18 incidents in 2018, Holtzman said.

“What we saw was gunfire take place; we’ve had eight or nine incidents in downtown this year,” Holtzman said. “Where it is taking place, it’s taking place in the outer edges of that corridor,” Holtzman said. People are getting into disputes inside businesses and then go to their vehicles in parking lots and the fight continues, with gunfire.

“We’re dealing with small numbers … we’re not talking hundreds,” Holtzman said. “Everyone of these calls matter. Everyone is a crime victim, it’s a risk to our officers, to the public.”

His department has changed its strategy. The 20 officers who work in the downtown area Friday and Saturday nights are split between a group that remains downtown to control crowds while others patrol the area parking lots with their lights activated.

His department has worked with the city and Greenville Utilities Commission to erect portable lighting. Holtzman said discussions are underway about employing private security firms to monitor parking lots and reviewing city ordinances to see what rules can be used to control crowds.

Discussions are underway to add more street lighting and brightening the existing lighting.

Holtzman said he’d also like to see a substation opened in the area of Fifth and Cotanche streets that can operate as a command center for officers working the weekend.

He also wants to improve communications with bar and nightclub owners so they’ll alert officers to incidents that start inside the club.

Shoneman said a lot of work has taken place the last six years to turn the area into a place where people who want an urban lifestyle — places to eat, drink, listen to music and dance — will want to be.

But there are challenges stemming from younger people coming downtown, and many are already slightly intoxicated, meeting participants said.

Beth Chaney, an associate professor with East Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Performance, led a three-year study of alcohol use behavior that involved interviewing downtown bar customers and administering breathalyzer tests.

Chaney said in the first two years of the study, researchers observed test subjects exhibiting signs of intoxication before entering any bar. In the third year they started asking about the pre-downtown drinking behavior.

Among more than 400 people they interviewed, 79 percent drank before going downtown, Chaney said.

Among those drinkers, 49.8 percent percent were male, 79 percent were college students and 32 percent were underage drinkers, she said.

Chaney said their findings revealed a much higher percentage of drinking before going out than in other studies in other parts of the country.

“That is something that I think we need to think about here,” Chaney said.

Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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