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Spare the sneakers, foil the crime?

A few weeks back, at the behest of the Savannah–Chatham Metro Police Department, workers from Georgia Power removed almost 200 pairs of shoes from power lines in midtown.

Something about this act of cleanliness smelled a little weird, in more ways than the collective funk of that many used sneakers.

Since when does fighting crime involve neighborhood housekeeping? Last week Connect contributor Tina A. Brown wrote "Gunning for the Gunners," a riveting piece about the hard–hitting strategies the police and city have adopted to get more bad guys off the street, and there was nothing in there about taking away their Chuck Taylors. (Actually, maybe it should be included in there with Project Ceasefire and more federal funding. Kinda hard to run from the cops in wet socks, right?)

The SMCPD press release relayed that Tatemville residents were "unnerved" by the dangling footwear because it marks territory for drug dealers, gangs and other unsavory characters.

Some had complained that the shoes were exacerbating the negative image of their community, already tainted by the shootings at the nearby Coastal Empire Fairground last fall.

District 5 Alderwoman Estella Shabazz remarked at the Feb. 21 City Council meeting that removing the shoes "is putting notice" to gangsters that criminal activity will not be tolerated.

While errant pairs of Nikes aren't as unsightly as dilapidated buildings and obscene graffiti, it's understandable how a bunch of them clustered together, swaying in the breeze, can be considered blight, especially if their previous wearers suffered from foot fungus. However, who thinks it's that easy to figure out where thugs hawk drugs? If certain gang bangers and druggies are still relying on shoelaces to communicate when you can purchase anything from heroin to rocket launchers from a Twitter account, these fools probably aren't the criminals we need to worry about.

Any fan of the 1995 IceCube/Chris Tucker stoner classic Friday knows that it's a joke to interpret shoes on a wire as a secret neon sign advertising "drugs sold here." Straight Dope columnist Cecil Adams debunked it as a practice way back in 1996, finding no evidence to support the claims that it was a "crackhead calling card."

It's just one of those persistent and ever–entertaining urban myths, along with chupacabras and the hapless backpackers who wake up in Jakarta missing a kidney.

There are other versions, likely inspired by wishful thinking on the part of some joneser looking for a fix. When I was a college student in Tucson, rumor was that you could score weed from any house with a bundle of Indian corn stalks hanging from the porch. This was news to my elderly neighbor, a retired schoolteacher with a predilection for Martha Stewart projects. She switched to knitting tea cozies after some hippies accidentally set fire to her lawn furniture.

I went to the SCMPD's Central Precinct on Bull Street to ask Capt. DeVonn Adams how the misplaced shoe myth came to be part of his officers' beat and found the explanation to be quite simple: It became his problem because the denizens of his precinct asked for help.

Now, Capt. Adams knows full well that the druggy significance of the wayward pairs is purely apocryphal. This lifelong Savannahian grew up in Cloverdale and went to BC, and he also understands that the key to building trust between cops and citizens is respect.

Encouraged by Chief Willie Lovett's admonitions to build relationships with the people, Capt. Adams chose to respond to rather than brush off what didn't appear to be a crime enforcement matter.

"This kind of thing isn't traditionally part of police work, but it was brought up at a neighborhood meeting as something that was bothering people," he said. "So we came up with a solution with the people at Georgia Power to take down the shoes."

The captain said utility workers will continue to remove them as they're encountered in regular rounds, a new policy catalyzed by the squeaky wheels at that neighborhood meeting. Perhaps an inspiration to attend yours the next time it comes around.

Capt. Adams also talked frankly about crime in Savannah, and how difficult it can be to police a place where affluence can deteriorate into poverty in the space of one block. He mentioned that other city departments like Sanitation and Park & Tree have entered into a new era of cooperation by providing "extra eyes and ears" for the cops, and that officers are making concerted efforts to engage instead of intimidate.

"We're getting out of our cars and talking to people," he said. "What's important to you is important to us."

He acknowledged that building relationships isn't just a nice gesture: It's a tactic. Six suspects were arrested in the fair shootings (more than two months after the fact) only because witnesses were finally willing to talk.

Information is power, and sharing it could be as effective as Giuliani–esque "stop and frisk" practices and drug squads.

This kinder, gentler police credo seems at odds with the forceful strategies listed in Brown's article — but I'm the last one who's going to deny the force a little good PR. Especially in the wake of allegations by Alderman Tony Thomas that officers are "dumbing down the numbers" to present less crime on the books. (Acting City Manager Stephanie Cutter has clarified that a recent Georgia Bureau of Investigations review yielded no evidence of such, and SCMPD is conducting its own investigations by external audit.)

No matter how misguided their complaints about the kicks hanging from the cables, Tatemville citizens' vocal concern for their neighborhood has translated into a potentially positive precedent: Collaboration between communities, police and private business. When we remember we're all part of the solution, we can work to solve the Big Crime Problems.

While nobody's shoes will unravel the unsolved murders of Wesley Franklin and Rebecca Foley and other crimes, the trust established by the department's random act of tidiness might yield vital intelligence.

But let's remember that when it comes to identifying the presence of crime in the neighborhood, by far the most obvious indicator are the actual criminals.

Watch them, report them, share what you know.