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New solutions to vexing issues
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In Savannah, talk of crime continues. And maybe that’s the rub.

Not the crime part. It’s clear. it’s here.

I’m thinking about the talk part. Also clear. Also here.

“Is it really true?” people from parts outside Savannah ask me, especially after dozens of papers across the country picked up Russ Bynum’s well-crafted Associated Press story (“Putting the Midnight Back in the City of Good and Evil,” as one headline read). “Is Savannah really that bad?”

If nothing else, it’s vexing -- a favorite word of Mayor Otis Johnson, a description he used multiple times during last week’s town hall meeting to describe the city’s poverty rate (an astonishing 22 percent), the city’s drug problem (driven by supply and demand but “Guess what?” he asked rhetorically, “No one at the bottom of the heap is flying airplanes or buying yachts.”).

And yes, the city’s crime problem. Vexing. Very, very vexing. Hard to argue with that. I do have some things I could argue with, however.

Like more drug rehab facilities. There aren’t enough. We need to lobby as hard for this as we do for more jails. Like the presence of big employers at the town hall meetings, people from SCAD, Memorial Health Center, Gulfstream. We need their input.

Like standards for people who work for the city. They aren’t high enough.

Do you like going into a city office, seeing the guard watching soap operas on a small television, having to wait for the scene to pass for her to say, “Second floor. Walk. The elevator doesn’t work”? I don’t. If she or her can’t stand the boredom, get someone who can.

Do you like sitting in a city office, reading a sign asking you to put away your cell phone while listening to the person behind the desk using the very same instrument? You want to talk vexing? How about the term used in the evening’s colorful and well-designed literature (and in the city’s printed literature) to describe our police force, a term used so often you might think of it as a Karl Rove-originated party line.

That term? “Aggressive policing.”

Huh? The nerve! If what we’re seeing is aggressive policing, then Bob’s your uncle and, by the way, do you want to buy a bridge? Because I have one to sell you.

Aggressive policing to me -- the kind that would result in “the tipping point,” a term used by our well-read mayor to describe how the little things can make a big difference (like a security guard watching soap operas), a concept popularized in a book by Malcolm Gladwell -- is not about police officers giving traffic tickets to cars facing the wrong direction on the street.

It’s not about police officers sitting in parking lots writing out reports in triplicate or talking on cell phones.

It’s not about police officers congregating between shifts in precinct offices.

It’s not about creating more study groups with less teeth.

It is about visibility, intent, momentum. It’s about turning things upside down.

Can we talk here? Because whatever we’re doing - which, by the way, does not look like anything we haven’t been doing in the ‘60’s, the 70’s, the 80’s or the 90’s - it’s not working. It’s dead in the water. Admit it and move on.

For my money -- and I suppose some of it is my money -- I say lose the tried-and-true precinct offices that are locked up tight as a drum and totally unreceptive to citizen participation.

Decentralize them and relocate them to the neighborhoods. Put a police car in front of them, live in them. Make of them a beacon of help.

Take one of those abandoned houses -- even though city manager Michael Brown reported with a straight face that there are only between 100 and 200 truly vacant and dilapidated houses in the city, a figure I really question since in my neighborhood alone I could point to at least six -- and turn a few of them into a neighborhood precinct office, the kind that stand out like a sore thumb.

But that might be tough. Because I sense that deep down, behind their blues and under their bulletproof vests, police officers are afraid of the punks, the rowdies, the sentries standing on the streets. Police officers and everyone else.

Next town hall meeting, that’s the message I’d like to hear from the mayor to the police and to the people, you and me included.

You see some rogues on the street? Stop and talk to them. Pull out a map and ask for directions. Ask why they’re not in school.

Tell them you’re thinking of moving to the neighborhood. Ask their opinion of crime.

Hang out with them. Discourage their business. Vex them.