‘We are in a war.’ As gun violence spikes, Columbus leaders weigh future of police chief
Sometimes it takes a crescendo of gunfire to turn Columbus’ growing unease with gun violence into outright alarm.
Columbus had nine homicides in two weeks, Feb. 15 through Feb. 28, totaling 12 for the first two months of 2023.
An abrupt spate of homicides is not uncommon here: For the first two months of previous years, the city had eight in 2022; 15 in 2021; 12 in 2020; seven in 2019; and six in 2018.
But the killings have continued: On March 7, two women, ages 51 and 52, were found dead from multiple gunshot wounds on Clay Street, off Benning Drive, where a neighbor said she heard the gunfire around 11 a.m.
The fatal shootings didn’t make national news. But on Feb. 17, when a 5-year-old was among nine juveniles wounded at a Shell gas station, at Warm Springs Road and Manchester Expressway, the story headlined major TV and online news networks.
Columbus Mayor Skip Henderson said he understands why people are worried.
“It’s just ridiculous, the stuff that’s going on,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer, calling the violence “horrific and absolutely unacceptable” and vowing to hold the shooters accountable.
“We’re going to catch them and get them off the street,” he said.
Conflict over race, police study
Amid this spree of violence is a fight over who runs the police department. Police Chief Freddie Blackmon has been under fire from the local Fraternal Order of Police, which last year said it had no confidence in him, and his management is questioned in a police department study authored by the national consulting firm Jensen Hughes.
Police have lost personnel, particularly experienced officers, and the study said they were leaving because of low morale from poor leadership.
Columbus Council got a draft of the report in November, and then had a public briefing on it Feb. 14, when councilors gave Blackmon a month to respond with a comprehensive plan to address the issues.
His response is due Tuesday.
The public debate over Blackmon’s tenure as police chief has been complicated by claims of racism.
Blackmon is the city’s second Black police chief, after Willie Dozier ran the department from 2000 to 2004. During council’s Feb. 28 meeting, his supporters criticized the Jensen Hughes study and how the council, which is mostly white, has treated the police chief.
“When the police chief comes back before you, be professional and respectful, and reject your tendency to humiliate him and be nostalgic in those 1950s and 1960s behaviors,” Pat Hugley Green said as she addressed council during its public agenda. Green is the District 1 representative on the Muscogee County school board, and City Manager Isaiah Hugley’s sister.
“You lacked decorum, and orchestrated divisiveness is the last thing we need with all that’s going on in our community right now,” she said.
Others have rejected claims Blackmon’s job is at risk because of his race.
Byron Hickey, a retired Black police officer who once sued the department for discrimination, alleged the city manager “pulled the race card” by stirring racial division on Blackmon’s behalf.
Hickey noted that several police officers, Black and white, left the department to work for Muscogee County Sheriff Greg Countryman, who is Black.
“Where’s the racism?” he asked.
Green and other Blackmon supporters noted also that the Jensen Hughes study privately was funded by anonymous donors, through the nonprofit Community Foundation of the Chattahoochee Valley’s “Safe Streets Fund.”
“The report becomes a ghost report, and citizens should believe the tooth fairy delivered it to you?” Green said.
The unnamed business leaders paid around $190,000 for the study. City Attorney Clifton Fay said the government had no records naming the donors, after the Ledger-Enquirer filed an open records request.
Only the foundation knows who the donors are, he said.
“The Community Foundation does not publicly share the names of donors to our funds or the amount of funding in each fund,” foundation president Betsy Covington wrote in an email. “We’ll leave it to the Columbus Consolidated Government to be the spokesperson for the Jensen Hughes work.”
Blackmon was at the Feb. 28 council meeting, but did not speak and declined to talk to reporters. He did not respond to questions the Ledger-Enquirer sent in an email last week.
Who runs public safety?
Before the public meeting, councilors held a private, executive session to discuss Blackmon. Councilors told the city manager to leave the executive session, a rarity. The city clerk and city attorney remained.
Under the city charter forming the Columbus Consolidated Government, the city manager is excluded from the public safety chain of command, which goes from the police and fire chief directly to the mayor.
Mayor Skip Henderson, who appointed Blackmon with council’s consent in November 2020, said he still supports the chief.
The city will use the Jensen Hughes report as a “road map” for the department, but it needs time to implement recommendations, he said.
“We’re just embarking on that,” he said. “We need to give those tools an opportunity to work.”
Gunfire at Lakebottom
Three days after the contentious council meeting, worried Lakebottom Park Little League parents gathered at the midtown park, wondering whether their children would be safe there after drive-by gunfire on Feb. 19, a Sunday afternoon when the park was busy.
District 8 Councilor Walker Garrett told them the council crowd was orchestrated to create a racial divide, to cast councilors as racists aiming to fire Blackmon because he’s Black.
Peach board member and coach Buford King had spoken on behalf of the league, at the council meeting, saying gunfire around Lakebottom Park was endangering everyone who went there.
“The gunshots at Lakebottom have become a recurring theme, and it’s got to end,” he told council. “Instead of practicing fundamentals, some coaches are teaching children to get down if there’s a gunshot.”
Garrett told parents at the park an officer was nearby when the gunfire erupted.
“Have no doubt: We are in a war,” he said, blaming gang violence. “We do not need an administrator. We need a general.”
The Jensen Hughes report criticized police for having no strategy to combat gangs.
Assistant Police Chief Debra Kennedy and Deputy Chief Clyde Dent came to Lakebottom to answer questions.
Kennedy said the department had 299 sworn officers out of a full complement of 488. The 488 was a goal the city set 15 years ago, when residents passed a sales tax devoted primarily to public safety.
The department is recruiting regularly and bringing on new officers, but it’s losing those with mid-level experience, she said.
Officers who’ve been there 15 years or so are leaving for other agencies, Kennedy said: “We’re seeing them leave like we haven’t seen in the past.”
After the park gunfire, which was captured on video, law enforcement was well represented at Peach Little League’s opening day, on March 4.
The sheriff sent an armored vehicle, police officers walked the grounds, and deputies monitored adjacent streets.
The league has devoted $4,000 previously budgeted for field improvements to hiring off-duty police officers for its nine-week season.
‘A reality every day’
On Feb. 28, the same day as the crowded evening council meeting, the suspect accused in the Feb. 17 Shell station shooting had a morning hearing in Columbus Recorder’s Court.
Police testified the 35-year-old was caught on camera driving a car from which the gunfire originated, and a 15-year-old suspect, charged as a juvenile, was in the vehicle with him.
The shooting followed a fight at a nearby party, and some of those involved went to the gas station. A detective said someone shot back at the suspect’s car, but that shooter had not been identified.
The 5-year-old wounded in the eye was not with anyone involved in the shooting. He was with his family in another car.
He is healing now, said an aunt, Kenyada McKenzie.
“His mom is my brother’s daughter,” she said. “He’s got a road to recovery, but he did not lose the eye.”
McKenzie came to the Feb. 28 council meeting because she works with Cure Violence, the community-based program that treats violence as a contagion akin to a communicable disease, and aims to interrupt a cycle of retaliation.
Cure Violence made a public presentation to council that night, after the crowd left.
Its director, Jerome Lawson, 41, spent 10 years in prison, from age 16 to 26. That experience gives him credibility with the people he has to counsel, to keep violence from spreading. He also runs a food truck called the Twisted Skillet.
After the meeting, Lawson said some Columbus neighborhoods hear gunfire all the time, and the residents have been hearing it for years.
“While the guy spoke about Lakebottom, that’s a reality every day, for some people,” he said. “So how can you say it needs to stop because now it’s in this area? It’s been needing to stop, and unfortunately and sadly now we’ve got people screaming for change because the trouble, the floods, have reached your doorstep, your house.”