A push for increased safety on the Downtown Mall

Following the disappearance, death of Hannah Graham, community, police consider increasing safety measures

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In the aftermath of the disappearance and death of second-year College student Hannah Graham, University students, Charlottesville citizens and city officials have found themselves increasingly concerned with personal safety. The city has responded with new awareness measures, also moving to foster discussion about new safety initiatives which can work to address community concerns — particularly on the Downtown Mall, where Graham was last seen alive.

Safety Concerns

Photo: Anne Owen

Though the Downtown Mall is home to many family- and student-oriented shops and events, it is by no means free from crime. This year alone, the Downtown Mall has been host to a number of violent incidents, including 72 assaults, 76 drug or narcotics violations and three robberies in the designated Mall neighborhood, according to year-to-date statistics published by the Charlottesville Police Department.

By comparison, the Venable and Corner neighborhoods, which include many off-Grounds student housing facilities — excluding those on Wertland St. — reported 22 assaults of all types, nine drug-related violations and 16 burglaries in the same year-to-date data.

Albemarle County, the jurisdiction in which the actual University sits, does not maintain a similar breakdown of crime data online. In the University's Clery Act report for 2013, however, there were a reported 37 rape or fondling incidents on or near University Grounds. The report also says there were four aggravated assaults and 59 burglaries in 2013.

Data aside, students continue to frequent the Mall — though in light of events this year there has been a shift in attitudes about safety.

First-year College student Sofie Niziak said she is more aware of her surroundings on the Downtown Mall. Niziak still frequents the area but is more concerned with safety than she was before Graham’s disappearance.

“I’m a lot more cautious and everyone is a lot more on edge,” Niziak said. “I wouldn’t want to go there at night. Whenever I go to the Downtown Mall I try to leave before [it gets dark].”

First-year College student Jonathan Palmer said the Graham case was a wake-up call to the realities of living in a city.

“[Hannah’s disappearance] made me realize that, after all, [the Downtown Mall] may not be as safe as a gated community,” Palmer said.

Palmer said it is important to be careful in and around the Charlottesville community.

“If we’ve learned [something] from Hannah Graham’s disappearance, it would be to just use more caution and to travel in groups,” Palmer said. “There is strength in numbers. Obviously what happened wasn’t a normal occurrence, but being extra wary is always key for safety.”

Mike Rodi, owner of Rapture Restaurant and Nightclub, has also noticed an increased awareness about safety among Rapture patrons — particularly at sorority and fraternity events hosted at Rapture since Graham’s disappearance.

“At sorority events we have had since then, I think the students are more understanding when we tell them to stay with their group,” Rohi said. “They’re a bit more appreciative of the reminder.”

Downtown Business Association Co-Chair Bob Stroh said he does not believe the Graham case represents a chronic problem in the Charlottesville community.

“I have lived in Charlottesville all my life and never viewed it as unsafe,” Stroh said. “One case is not indicative of a larger security concern for the citizens of Charlottesville.”

Stroh said Graham's disappearance has stimulated a greater attention to safety among Charlottesville residents, however.

"I think the biggest safety measure has been the increased awareness in the community,” Stroh said.

Moving Forward

Charlottesville officials are looking to make constructive changes to their safety policies, Charlottesville Police spokesperson Steve Upman said.

“Frankly, we’re always looking at ways to improve patrol efforts, not only on the Downtown Mall, but also in the entirety of Charlottesville,” Upman said. “We are always looking at strategies to increase our presence and enforcement efforts in all areas of the city when the need arises.”

Upman said the Charlottesville Police Department often bases police stationing on the community’s current needs. This frequently occurs during large community events.

“It’s not a hard fast rule — it’s dependent on what’s going on in that particular instance,” Upman said. “For example, we always increase patrol efforts on Fridays after 5, [and] we increase patrol on the Corner when big events are going on.”

Charlottesville City Council member Kristin Szakos said that the city will continue to improve safety measures, as safety is always a primary concern.

“In the grand scheme of things, everything needs to be safer,” Szakos said. “We should always be trying to make the city safer. The Downtown Mall is not one of our least safe areas. The crime rate has gone down recently, but that’s not to say that there’s not always more we can do.”

Szakos said the most important aspect of safety is ensuring Charlottesville citizens feel safe throughout the city, whether on the Downtown Mall or elsewhere.

“In terms of the perception of safety, a city isn’t really safe until people feel safe,” Szakos said. “We can spurt out all the statistics we want, but if people are afraid, the statistics are irrelevant.”

Charlottesville City Council member Bob Fenwick said making changes to safety policies in Charlottesville will likely take time because of the analysis necessary for implementing successful policy.

“Everyone expects a quick easy answer, but these are things we really need to think through,” Fenwick said. “We can’t jump into something quickly and find out it doesn’t work.”

Suggested Reform

Regarding safety strategies, Upman said the Charlottesville police are constantly looking for opportunities to better protect the community.

“It’s a process of analyzing what’s going on, and implementing strategies to address those events when they take place,” Upman said. “Any time we see a need or an opportunity to improve the deployment of our resources, we always take that opportunity.”

Rodi has taken the initiative of purchasing a camera system for Rapture, saying restaurants and other establishments on the Mall should take some responsibility for the safety of their patrons.

“We’ve long had a policy … of not denying people access just because they’re intoxicated,” Rodi said. “We won’t serve them, but it’s always been my belief that you can’t just let someone who might not be familiar with the area go wandering off. I think we need to take some responsibility for that.”

As a part of that philosophy, staff is also trained to be aware of the status of their patrons, Rodi said.

“We continue to train bartenders to look for people that may be over-served or that have ingested some sort of narcotic,” Rodi said.

Stroh said he hopes Charlottesville will implement long-term safety measures to create a more secure environment on the Downtown Mall.

“The one thing that we are looking to create is a system with better cameras and better access,” Stroh said. “The footage that was captured on the night of Hannah's disappearance was the result of the Downtown Business Association asking its members to create a private system of security cameras.”

Installing the cameras is ultimately a decision made by the Charlottesville City Council.

“There has been some discussion about cameras on the Downtown Mall, which [Chief] Longo brought up in 2007,” Upman said. “There are ongoing discussions about those, but nothing has been decided at this point.”

City Council is open to any suggestions regarding how to improve safety on the Downtown Mall. Recently, the Charlottesville Youth Council suggested the implementation of a blue light system — similar to the system on Grounds — on the Mall.

“We weren’t considering [the blue light system] before they brought it forward, but they have moved the conversation in that direction” Szakos said. “I think it’s great that it’s another tool in the toolbox that we can use.”

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