'Safe Streets' handling duties of dissolved Columbus vice unit

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Beginning this week, people living in three Columbus neighborhoods will notice police officers rolling down their streets on bicycles rather than cruisers.

The Columbus Division of Police's Safe Streets program is a community policing initiative that allows police officers to take the time to talk to people, listen to their concerns and build relationships with neighbors who can help serve as eyes and ears for the officers and play an active role in making their community a safer place to live.

The original Safe Streets pilot program rolled out in the Linden neighborhood two years ago and police said the community has since embraced it.

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"When we walk into the room, they are so excited to see us. They know who we are. They can't wait for the program to start again," said Sgt. Dana Hess.

This year, Safe Streets is expanding its mission to help fill the gap created when CPD suspended and then abolished the Vice Unit which investigated crimes including soliciting. Police said neighborhood complaints about prostitution are on the rise.

"Unfortunately, when we're not out there attacking the problem, the problem's going to grow," said Sgt. Hess.

Judge Paul Herbert said enrollment is down by as much as 50 percent in catch court, which recognizes women who engage in prostitution as victims in need of intervention including trauma counseling and drug and alcohol counseling.

The Columbus Division of Police said it's looking at opportunities to reorganize and utilize resources to address prostitution issues.

Safe Streets hopes to be part of the solution. On Saturday, three dozen Safe Streets officers took part in specialized training to help them recognize the indicators of human trafficking. It's the next step in a program that expanded last year to include the Parsons Avenue corridor on the south side of Columbus and the Hilltop.

When Safe Streets Linden launched in May of 2017, officers seized 23 weapons off the street and made 45 felony arrests. The following year, officers seized 69 weapons and made 127 felony arrests in that community.

In 2018, the three Safe Streets programs combined seized a total of 102 illegal weapons and made 279 arrests. That's more than a 500 percent increase from that first pilot program a year earlier.

Safe Street officers say this year, they'll not only focus on catching the bad guys but making sure no victim of human trafficking slips through the cracks.

"We're going to try to pick up some of the slack. It's a little bit in its infancy, but I feel like with this class we're getting a better idea of how to tackle that issue at a patrol level and who we can get in contact with to make some positive change," said Safe Streets Officer Shawn Lutz.