Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas on Thursday acknowledged that there are “gaps” in the policing of the Downtown Mall but promised to work to find ways to better police the commercial corridor with existing officers.
Thomas, who in May replaced Timothy J. Longo, told the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville that he has broached the topic with city staff but that the city is wary of mid-year hires.
“I don’t think we can wait until July 1,” Thomas said, referring to the start of the next fiscal year. “I don’t want to wait that long, but we are working within the guidelines of local government. … I think you are going to see more coverage in months, not years.”
The department is currently short 23 officers, Thomas said, but there is relief coming in the form of patrol officers who are almost finished with on-the-job training and another nine new hires who just entered the academy.
The Downtown Mall Ambassadors program, which provided part-time city employees with police radios to patrol the mall during the day, ended July 1. City Manager Maurice Jones said in March that cutting the program would save the city about $104,000. The city currently employs one Community Service Officer who patrols the mall by bicycle during the day and one police officer who is specifically assigned to the mall; other officers cover the mall as needed.
Kirby Hutto, manager of the Sprint Pavilion, said a combination of alcohol and public visibility makes adequate policing even more important.
“The Downtown Mall is very, very busy in the evenings, and a lot of our patrons are consuming alcohol,” Hutto said. “It is the kind of thing where if something happens, it is on the front page of the paper the next morning.”
Mary Beth Schellhammer, owner of My Chocolate Shop, said the presence of panhandlers is an ongoing conern.
“At what point can we call you guys on these panhandlers?” she asked Thomas. “These people who are asking money and, when you say no, making disparaging comments.”
By city ordinance, panhandlers may not directly solicit from patrons at outdoor restaurant patios but may ask for money along the walking portion of the mall. A federal judge last year declared unconstitutional a section of the ordinance that banned the practice within 50 feet of vehicle crossings.
Because the practice is not banned, Thomas said, there is little police can do about panhandling itself.
“To me, the line is when someone becomes aggressive. No means no,” Thomas said. “The answer may not be arrest; we cannot arrest our way out of problems. The solution might be having an officer show up and talk to that person.”
DBAC Chairman George Benford and member Roy Van Doorn said they saw some ideas to relieve the issue on a recent trip to the walking mall in downtown Burlington, Vermont.
The Vermont city, whose mall is about half as long as Charlottesville’s, has alternative donation kiosks along the corridor and service providers who can be called in lieu of police.
The Burlington mall, which like the Downtown Mall has existed for roughly 40 years, also has a dedicated pot of city money collected from businesses along the corridor. The fund provides about $1 million a year dedicated to the space, Benford and Van Doorn said.
The DBAC has recently restarted efforts to institute a business improvement district similar to the one Burlington set up. The DBAC withdrew a request last year to form the district after questions arose about the safety of the mall and how proceeds from the district would be spent.