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602 S. Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902
The issue of homelessness and panhandling in the Old City, which Mike Gibson mentioned in his Metro Pulse article “New Look” on July 7 [Citybeat] has been a recurring problem since the neighborhood’s first renaissance in the late 1980s.
When the Old City Neighborhood Association requested a police presence to discourage panhandling and to reassure growing retail clientele of the area’s safety, the KPD replied that there was not enough crime to justify the expense of a foot patrolman, and until incident rates increased, there would be none (!).
Eventually though, a semi-retired patrol officer was assigned for a few hours several days a week, and the difference was remarkable. His cool, friendly, and deliberate professionalism assured shop owners and patrons that the neighborhood was indeed safe.
Later, the beat cop was replaced with bicycle patrols, who could not have the same “ground-level” rapport with neighborhood businesses and residents, and with new rookies in patrol cars, eager to fight crime. They enthusiastically wrote parking tickets, which put off new visitors. In the late 1990s a few high-profile crimes confirmed the worst fears of the public regarding the Old City, who had heard of the less secure days of the 1950s and ’60s.
One suggestion I made to the Chamber of Commerce and to the Downtown Organization is for part of downtown’s promotion budget be used for a “Visitor Service Corps,” to maintain a uniformed presence to improve perception of safety for visitors. The regular foot patrols could be unarmed, with a dedicated police radio channel.
With the current success of downtown and the impending new bloom of the Old City, perhaps the time is right for a CBID or Knox Partnership-funded unit to promote safety and convenience for the growing number of visitors discovering downtown as a destination.
A change in perception can create a new reality.
George Brock Scott
Old City Neighborhood Association, 1987-1995