Keith Porch

Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch speaks during a City Council safety committee special meeting on gun violence Wednesday evening.

MANSFIELD -- A wide-ranging discussion of gun violence was the topic of discussion during a nearly two-hour special meeting of the Mansfield City Council's safety committee Wednesday evening.

Mansfield police Chief Keith Porch provided statistics that show total gun violence crimes in the city have actually declined year-over-year in recent years -- with 66 violent gun crimes in 2015, 61 in 2016, 59 in 2017, 52 in 2018 and 25 through July 16 of 2019.

However, some of the gun violence category numbers  in 2019, if they continue at the current pace, do show an uptick, including felonious assaults, carrying concealed weapons, discharging of a firearm on a near a prohibited premise and discharging a firearm at or into a home.

There have been nine instances of a resident being struck by a bullet thus far in 2019, compared to 12 in all of 2018 and 11 in 2017, police statistics showed.

There have been three homicides in Mansfield in 2019, none of them gun-related.

Community members, included a group of local bar/restaurant owners, spoke during the meeting.

Firearm issues in the nightclubs, including an April shooting outside The Patio on Park Avenue West and another earlier this month at The Electric Company on West Fourth Street, have led to discussions that may allow off-duty, uniformed Mansfield police officers to be hired to assist with security.

Such off-duty work in nightclubs has been prohibited by the city for a number of years. But Porch, Mayor Tim Theaker, Safety-Service Director Lori Cope and Law Director John Spon said discussions are underway that may allow for that policy to change.

OWNERS ASK FOR HELP: David Harmon, owner of The Patio, questioned the gun violence stats and said the April 7 shooting has damaged his business.

David Harmon

David Harmon, owner of The Patio, discusses how his business has been damaged since a shooting there on April 7.

"These shooting numbers ... do you think they include the guys from the north end that are shooting at the guys from Detroit? Do you think that got called in? What side is gonna call that in? I think there are a lot of shootings that don't get called in."

Harmon said his business took in almost $100,000 in March. During April, that declined to $7,000 and then down to $4,000 in May and $7,500 in June.

"I am dead in the water right now. People don't want to come here because they don't feel safe. How can I make them feel safe? I don't have that answer. I do believe if I had off-duty police (working at the bar) it would help me so much.

Harmon said there have been instances when he attempts to deny someone entry to the bar that the patron shows him a gun. He described a recent incident when he attempted to help a female patron who stumbled on the stairs. The man with the woman pulled a gun because he believed Harmon was "messing with his girl."

"I am 28 years old. I own six businesses in Richland County. I work hard. I don't want to have to go to work and put a (gun) in the back of my jeans. That's not for me to do," Harmon said.

He said having a uniformed officer working in his parking lot would improve security "one million percent."

Police have not made any arrests in The Patio shooting and said Wednesday a lack of cooperation from witnesses in such incidents make solving the crime more difficult.

Steve Bulakovski, owner of Kosta's on West Fourth Street for three decades, also said off-duty uniformed police in the parking lot would make a difference. 

"The town's going to hell in a hand basket. You're never gonna get witnesses because snitches get shot. I don't even know why I am standing here because I am putting my own family in jeopardy.

"If I don't go to the bar every night and run security myself, someone will die," Bulakovski said.

"I just came from Columbus where we are about to open our fifth bar. The first person we met with was the police. In the Short North, you can't even open a bar unless you have a police officer standing out front," he said.

Bulakovski said he has started closing his bar 90 minutes early every night in order to reduce the chance for trouble. "At 1 a.m., the trouble comes out," he said.

Dan Lew, owner of the Dan Lew Exchange in downtown Mansfield, said he has had his business opened at its location for just over a year.

"For the past couple of months, I have been slowly seeing that element in my place in the evenings. I have always trued to be proactive in terms of safety and I know it's difficult to do on a  budget. There are not very many of us (bar/restaurant/nightclubs) around. Perhaps patrol just these handful of places for a very short period of time until the word gets out," Lew said.

"The element are the the individuals that don't have that filter and they are willing to do display that in public. Whether it's from their family upraising, whether it's drug related, alcohol related ... could be all of that.

"I guess my challenge at this point, especially for the business owners, is it just feels like we have become that second-class, that third-class business ... the way we are looked at because of the violence," he said.

FOCUSED DETERRENCE STRATEGIES: During their presentation, Porch and Assistant Chief Joseph Petrycki, both long-time Mansfield police officers who assumed their new positions earlier this year, discussed the "focused deterrence strategies" put into place in 2016.

Included in that strategy is working with a local group called the Mansfield Community Against Violence and the Richland County Prosecutor's Office on "call-ins," during which small groups of people on probation or parole are called into City Council chambers.

Hand-delivered letters summon the individuals to the sessions and warn them of tough criminal enforcement for continued violent behavior.

"We want to intervene in the lives of young adults who may be at the highest risk (of violent crimes)," Petrycki said.

There have been three such "call-ins" thus far and the plan is to increase them to four per year, officials said.

"Shots fired calls" decreased by 28.4 percent after the initial "call-in" on June 29, 2017, until Dec. 31, 2017. Those same calls are up 2.65 percent for the first half of 2019 compared to the five-year average for that same time period each year since 2015.

Petrycki called for patience with the program, which was adopted after Mansfield police visited High Point, N.C. and observed a smiliar program. "I think we're on the right track," the 23-year officer said.

Cope, who began her career as a police officer in Mansfield, said the department had about 100 officers when she began in patrol. The department now has around 78 sworn officers.

"It's my goal to increase the number of officers on patrol," she said.

COMMUNITY LEADERS: City Council At-Large member Don Bryant, who chairs the safety committee and called for the meeting, welcomed several other community members who spoke during the session.

William Salas

William Salas, youth pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church, speaks Wednesday evening during a Mansfield City Council safety committee meeting.

William Salas, youth pastor at Shiloh Baptist Church in Mansfield, asked Porch if there was a gang problem in Mansfield and what police were doing to address the drug problems in the community. He also asked about police developing relationships with young people.

Porch said Mansfield has a "non-traditional" gang problem, adding the MPD has five officers assigned full-time to the METRICH Task Force, aimed at drug law enforcement.

Porch pointed to the department's D.A.R.E. program and Police Athletic League, adding developing ties with young people are a priority with the department.

Brigitte Coles, who helped to found the community group We ACT in 2015 after a shooting at Johns Park, spoke about the group's efforts in the community, including a series of "Safe Summer Fridays" in city parks for families, children, police officers and others.

"What is so important here is building those relationships," she said.

A trio of local music promoters and hip-hop musicians also spoke, including Ryan James, who said The Electric Company, after the shooting, cancelled a planned hip-hop event he was organizing for Aug. 2.

James said he works with local young people and talent and that the music helps get them off the streets and keeps them out of trouble.

COUNCIL MEMBERS: Several council members attended the meeting, including Cliff Mears (At-Large), Jean Taddie (6th Ward), Jason Lawrence (5th Ward), Walden "Butch" Jefferson (4th Ward) and council President Phil Scott.

All of them expressed appreciation for the work done by the police department and to the residents who attended the meeting.

"If you're not safe, nothing else matters," Mears said.

Jefferson called for "out-of-the-box solutions," and told residents, "It's not snitching when you tell the police the truth. It's a mindset."

Bryant, who is giving up his council seat to run for mayor against Theaker in November, said, "Regardless if I am elected in the future, I want to be sure there is something in place that is structured to where we can work together on shooting violence here in Mansfield."

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"