Is Public Safety A Concern?
By Sinthu Ramalingam
It’s around 7pm on a Wednesday evening, and several people are seated inside the Clark Campbell Transportation Center. The transportation center has reached its sleepy time of the day, and sees a lot less traffic than it does during the rest of the day.
A voice comes over the speakers.
“May I have your attention! If you are not riding the greyhound or city bus, it’s time to leave the premises, or the bike patrol will be called, and you will be charged with trespassing. If you are caught loitering, panhandling, or soliciting, you may go to jail. If you are not riding the greyhound or city bus, you no longer have 90 minutes to sit around. You’re either riding the greyhound or city bus, or leave the premises.”
The Clark Campbell Transportation Center is the downtown location with the highest number of calls to the Winston-Salem Police Department. According to Sergeant K. S. Bowers, who leads the Winston-Salem Police Department Downtown Bike Patrol, the transportation center has made 919 calls for service between January 1, 2011, and November 20, 2013. There was also a bomb threat during this time frame.
The location with the next highest number of calls to the WSPD from downtown is Crystal Towers, with 788 calls of services during the same time frame, followed by the main branch of the Forsyth County Public Library with 252 calls.
Although these locations have the most number of calls to the police, representatives from the Winston-Salem Transportation Authority as well as the Forsyth Public Library say that the reason that they place such a high number of calls to the police is because of their commitment to keeping these locations safe. They say the high number of calls does not mean that the transit center and the library are unsafe.
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Clark Campbell Transportation Center
Art Barnes, the general manager of the Winston-Salem Transit Authority, said the police department receives the most calls downtown from the transportation center because it has the highest concentration of people, and not because of any sort of safety issue.
Barnes said that most of the calls from the center involve trespassing. “There is armed security,” he added. “Also, there are about 40 surveillance cameras throughout the facility.”
In addition, the transportation center has a sworn officer as a part of its team. The rest of the security personnel notify the WSPD in the case of any incident. Barnes said that the WSTA is doing everything it can to keep the center safe..
People may only remain in the center while waiting for a connecting bus; anyone who violates that could be considered a trespasser. However, the general public using the transportation center do not always feel safe.
Leilani Batiste, who uses the center during her commute back and forth from work at BB&T, said that the center doesn’t feel safe for her. “There’s people coming in from all different places, and there’s not that much security, especially when it comes to being in the bathroom or in the alley,” Batiste said, “Before it got cold, I’d go wait at the Embassy Suites and catch the bus from across it because I didn’t feel safe here.” She added that she would feel safer if the routes were run more frequently so there would be less loitering and less of an opportunity for any incident to happen.
Jack Groomes, a supervisor security guard with Williams Guard and Patrol, the company that serves the transportation center, said that when he started working at the center about nine years ago, the center was a rough place that had drugs and alcohol among other problems. “We had to fight and clean it up, and now it’s in a pretty good shape. I would say it’s safe now.”
Forsyth County Public Library
Elizabeth Skinner, the assistant director of the Forsyth County Public Library, said that the reason that the WSPD received so many calls from the main branch of the Forsyth County Public Library was because the library was so proactive about security. “We have three full-time security guards and one parr-time security guard, and they are constantly patrolling our building and trying to anticipate security problems,” she said.
Skinner added that since the library has rules, if anyone is asked to leave for the day or an extended period of time and returns to the library premises, they are considered a trespasser. In addition, the library’s good relationship with the bicycle patrol and the downtown police force helps keep it safe.
Actual Safety versus Public Perception
Natasha Ziglar, a library patron who uses the main branch for research on painting says she feels safe only when the library staff is paying attention. Ziglar said she has been followed around the library by male strangers and that she was upset by the sexual assault in the library last month.
Tucker Pollard, who frequents the library once a week, feels similarly. “I come by myself and feel safe as long as I come during daytime hours and don’t go too deeply into the library by myself.” Pollard added that brighter, more open spaces would help make her feel safer in the library, and that positioning the staff more evenly instead of having them clustered at a few locations in the library would also help.
Skinner said that a different layout could also make the library feel safer. “We have high hopes for our new central library that we’re going to build in the next few years that we can design it with a layout that is more open and easier for all staff to see what’s going on, so better visibility of the activity in the library,” she said. Skinner also believes that public perception and preconceived notions of the homeless population in Winston-Salem helps explain why library patrons could feel less safe than they actually are.
“We worked really hard on that perception this year,” Skinner said, “We have a three-year grant to work on homelessness, and serving that population better in the library.” In addition to hiring a specialist whose job focuses on helping library patrons who are homeless, the library has also trained their staff to better interact with the homeless population, and tried to educate the rest of the library patrons about the issue of homelessness.
“We have an annual “on the same page community reading project,”” Skinner said. “And this fall, we focused on the issue of homelessness. So we are trying to help the public by offering programs that might help them understand the issues better. One of our hopes is that by staff modeling respect for this population, and having a good relationship with people who are experiencing homelessness, that people who use the library will see that they are not threatening.” Skinner added that although it was tempting for people to correlate crime incidents with homelessness, that isn’t generally the case.
Library security officer Billy Caudle agreed. “We get a lot of homeless people,” he said. “A lot of times, they come in, and do what they’ve got to do more so than normal patrons because they know this is their safe haven.”
How do we improve the safety?
President of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, Jason Thiel, said that they look at the downtown crime reports every month, and have a public safety meeting. He added that the crimes downtown were rarely violent crimes committed against people. “What we typically have are crimes based on opportunity.”
Thiel said that public perception was something that they wanted to change, and that communication was important. “It’s an ongoing process that never ends. It’s about making people understand that there are dangers everywhere,” Thiel said. “We’ve done public service announcements. Business owners know that they have an outlet to communicate with police departments and voice concerns.”
When the occasional more serious crime does occur, Thiel said that they work to share information and make people aware so that they can help the police.
Bowers agrees that there is not a safety issue downtown. However, he sees a few improvements that could be made. “I would like for there to be better lighting in the downtown area. I also would like for people to report crimes when they occur and not wait to report an incident.”
Bowers also said that the safety forums that they hold at different residential buildings and businesses are a good way to keep people informed.
Published November 26, 2013