Saturday, May 15, 2004

Downtown safe despite killing, police say

Overall, statistics show low crime rate

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

DOWNTOWN - The apparent random robbery and killing of a pizza maker the day before one of the city's biggest festivals has focused attention on crime downtown, but police statistics show that homicides and other violent crimes downtown are rare.

Do you feel safe coming downtown?
Police said Friday that a 17-year-old robbed Robbie Harris of cash before shooting him to death at Seventh and Vine streets about 12:20 a.m. Thursday.

Last year, serious crime in downtown dipped by 1 percent. The bulk of all downtown crimes are thefts, many from cars.

"It's a big, complex city, and we try to do the best we can,'' David Ginsburg, president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc., said Friday. "Unfortunately, random acts of violence do happen.''

Of the city's 75 killings in 2003, one was in the Central Business District. In that case, police said Antonio Owens' killer had been after him for some time because of a dispute in Millvale and chased him to the middle of downtown.

In Thursday's killing, the teen is charged with aggravated murder and aggravated robbery in the death of Harris, 35, of Winton Terrace. Harris had left work at the Walnut Street Uno's restaurant about an hour before he was shot.

Harris' boss, Uno's manager Shawn McGreevy, called the cook "a great, great worker, very hard worker. He was the kind of guy who was just always here on time.''

Violent attacks downtown can be a public relations nightmare for folks battling to keep up the perception of safety so suburban residents feel comfortable attending events such as this weekend's Jammin' on Main music festival. They prompt almost immediate e-mails from Capt. James Whalen, commander of downtown police, to Ginsburg. Ginsburg widely disseminates the information to business owners and downtown residents. Many of them Friday did not want to talk about the killing because they didn't want to draw more attention to the crime and scare people unnecessarily.

Amy Banisterworks at the downtown branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, a block north of where Harris was killed. She has worked downtown for more than a decade.

"I used to walk to work when I lived in Mount Adams,'' she said. "I work downtown, I park my car downtown. I've never felt in any way unsafe.''

Police have surveillance video of part of the shooting recorded on the library's security camera. The video doesn't show everything, but it was somewhat helpful to detectives, Police Chief Tom Streicher said.

Information from witnesses helped officers arrest the teen, who remained jail Friday.

"It's a good piece of work on everyone's part,'' the chief said. "I'm praising the citizens that came forward and directed the policemen in the right direction.''

In his e-mail Thursday about Harris' death, Whalen said he cringes every time a crime, especially a violent one, happens in his district.

The crime picture is similar in other nearby downtowns, including Indianapolis. There, in 2002, one person was killed, and 1,272 thefts were reported to police. Statistics for 2003 were not available Friday.

In Cincinnati's Central Business District and riverfront last year, there were 2,031 serious crimes reported to police. Of that number, 1,450 were theft reports. Serious crime includes murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assaults, burglary, theft and auto theft.

But some crimes are difficult to anticipate or prevent.

"When a 17-year-old man leaves home with a gun, intent on doing a bad thing, there is virtually nothing any of us can do to prevent it,'' Whalen said.

He added in the e-mail: "There are so many positive efforts being put forth by so many people to improve both the reality and the perception of downtown safety, and events such as this are a setback."

Ginsburg and Whalen have worked together in the past year to develop programs that they hope will increase the perception that downtown is safe. Among them: a new downtown Citizens on Patrol; virtual blockwatch that allows members of Downtown Cincinnati Inc to disseminate surveillance footage of crimes to try to identify suspects; and regular meetings between police, business operators and residents to talk about security issues.

"Are you going to walk down the street and be confronted with a violent crime downtown? No,'' Whalen said Friday from Jammin' on Main. "But we live in a major city, and major cities have crime.''


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