Surveillance plan seen as remedy in 3-square-mile area
Violent crime is rising downtown, making it the second-most dangerous area in Tucson, at a time when the city wants to draw more people and businesses there.
Police recently pointed to safety concerns when announcing a plan to use surveillance cameras downtown. The fears are hurting the city revitalization effort known as Rio Nuevo, officials say.
From January 2004 through August 2006, the downtown police precinct had 267 violent crimes per square mile, a Tucson Citizen analysis of police reports shows. The crimes – aggravated assault, robbery, rape and homicide – were reported in an area roughly bounded by East Speedway Boulevard, East 26th Street, North Euclid Avenue and Interstate 10.
The number of reported violent crimes in 2005 – 288 – marked an 11 percent increase over 2003, the first full year of operation for the downtown precinct opened as part of Rio Nuevo. Violent crime through August of this year was running at a similar pace as last year.
The 3 square miles of the downtown precinct have more violent crime than most areas because a lot of people are there, and, whether they’re daytime workers or nighttime pleasure seekers, people downtown are often on foot and potential targets, police say.
Downtown also has a relatively large population of homeless people, drug dealers and other groups more likely to commit crimes, they add.
In the average week, about two aggravated assaults and two robberies are reported downtown. Almost half of the area’s violent crime is reported between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Only one part of Tucson, north of Speedway and running along North Oracle Road to Roger Road, had a higher rate than downtown, with 279 violent crimes per square mile in the 31 months ending in August.
Assistant Police Chief Kathleen Robinson said she wanted to address a perception problem when she introduced the surveillance plan. She said she was surprised to learn downtown crime statistics were so high.
“We could draw more businesses down here if they felt it was safe,” she said.
William Skiles, owner of an art studio on East Congress Street, said part of the fear of downtown stems from a perception.
“It feels rough and edgy downtown. You have a different type of crowd, and that keeps some people away,” he said. “But you’ll also notice that I have bars over my windows and an alarm system.”
Employees at other downtown businesses agreed.
“Some people won’t come downtown because they think it’s a high-crime area,” said Carlton Bashir, manager of Crescent Tobacco and Newsstand on Congress.
Rio Nuevo manager Greg Shelko said perceptions about crime are one reason why more retailers haven’t located downtown.
“We have to prove that it’s safe here,” Shelko said recently.
Maggie Golston, founder of Biblio, said last year that social ills around the bookstore’s East Congress location were one reason she closed.
The store sat across the street from the Ronstadt Transit Center, the hub for Sun Tran buses and a hangout for the homeless and others downtown. Crowds make it a hot spot for violent crime, police said.
The center is in the 200 block of East Congress, which had 56 violent crimes in the 31 months ending in August, more than any other block downtown.
A 37-year-old homeless man was stabbed to death last month on West Congress, a block from the Ronstadt Center, during a fight with two other homeless men, police said.
In March, a 16-year-old suspected drug dealer was accused of killing a man in the Martin Luther King Jr. Apartments, next to the Ronstadt Center.
Still, merchants report feeling safer since the creation of the downtown precinct, based in the department’s headquarters at 270 S. Stone Ave., Assistant Chief Robinson said.
With more officers covering downtown, the department can provide more personalized service than in other parts of Tucson, where officers are often stuck in patrol cars while responding to calls. Downtown officers also use bike and foot patrols, hoping their presence deters crime.
Robinson wants to extend the department’s scope downtown by selling the City Council on her surveillance plan soon. Because of privacy issues raised by the cameras, the plan has been deemed a policy issue needing council approval.
The Target Corp. has offered to pay an undisclosed portion of the camera costs. An officer at the downtown precinct would monitor for suspicious activity captured by the cameras at 14 locations, most of them on Congress or Stone Avenue, Robinson said.
The cameras are one part of the department’s plan, called Rio Nuevo Safe City Centro, which also includes an e-mail alert system and police working with private security guards to identify criminal activity.
Sources: Tucson Police Department, Tucson Citizen analysis
Personal safety tips
● Be aware of your surroundings and don’t act afraid.
● Avoid unnecessary confrontations.
● Don’t fight for personal property if assailant is armed.
● When resisting an attack, “incapacitate by striking a vulnerable spot (eyes, throat, groin), or create a distraction so you can flee.”
The downtown Tucson police precinct covers an area roughly bounded by East Speedway Boulevard and East 26th Street and North Euclid Avenue and Interstate 10. From 2004 through August 2006, the following numbers of violent crimes were reported in the precinct:
● 284 robberies ● 271 aggravated assaults
● 44 rapes ● 7 homicides