News 12 First at Five / Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Cutter Mitchell owns Ryan's Downtown Market and Deli in downtown Aiken. Safe streets and friendly faces brought him here to Aiken. Now, Mitchell is concerned.
"We're seeing less of a police presence downtown than what we're used to. You know, when we opened up three years ago, you had horse patrols, you had bike patrols, you had foot patrols," Mitchell told News 12.
Even though he still feels safe, it's the visibility of officers he says is lacking. It was the topic of a letter sent to Chief Charles Barranco of the Aiken Department of Public Safety from Carla Cloud, the executive director of the Aiken Downtown Development Association.
"We believe an increase in uniformed patrols may help alleviate the concerns of our citizenry and cut down on the number of panhandlers," the letter reads.
"And that's just something that people like to see. I mean, Aiken's a tourist town. People come in and just like to see it. It's fun. They interact with these great people that we have employed at Public Safety," Mitchell said.
Next door, Jami Chandler, owner of Aiken Dry Goods, agrees. She says all options are currently on the table, including coming together with other businesses to hire private security.
"I think priorities maybe have shifted to other things, and for me, the priority is downtown Aiken," she said.
Chandler and Mitchell will hold a meeting next Monday at 6 p.m. at the deli near the corner of Laurens Street and Richland Avenue to gauge how other businesses feel.
"I disagree. We had great visibility when we had a problem," said Mary O'Hare, the owner of M.B. Jewelry And Beads on Laurens Street.
Since she set up shop there 10 years ago, she says the need for police foot or bicycle patrols has diminished.
"I think our officers need to be out doing things that are a lot more important. Besides, they're only a phone call away," she said.
While Ryan's, Aiken Dry Goods and other businesses News 12 talked to have noticed more panhandlers, O'Hare hasn't.
"I do know that sometimes take a preconception just by taking a look at somebody, and going, 'Hmm, maybe they're not a very good person.' And that's not always the case," O'Hare said.
News 12 spoke with Chief Charles Barranco and Sgt. Jake Mahoney of the Aiken Department of Public Safety. Both say they haven't noticed an increase in panhandling. Chief Barranco says they have a continuous presence in downtown Aiken and that they respond to every call they receive from downtown Aiken.
Barranco says they still have two officers dedicated to downtown. In just the past couple of weeks, he says they've arrested panhandlers, people soliciting, even someone for defecation on a sidewalk.
Barranco is not sure if he'll attend Monday's meeting with businesses. Before moving forward, he says he wants to find out the root of the issue.