Some Neighbors Unsure If They Could Spot ‘Real’ Trouble

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Columbus Police Officer Joseph Valiski patrols parts of the South Side neighborhood where crime is high. Valiski said training, good tips and gut instinct help decide when a situation could be serious.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)
Columbus Police Officer Joseph Valiski patrols parts of the South Side neighborhood where crime is high. Valiski said training, good tips and gut instinct help decide when a situation could be serious.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News Reporter)

The story of three Cleveland women and a child held captive for years in the middle of an active neighborhood has many asking: why no one knew. Strange activity at the house was brushed off – neighbors say police overlooked problems because it was a poor, troubled area.

WOSU visited a couple Columbus neighborhoods to see how residents there watch for unusual activity.

Parts of the Hilltop neighborhood can be rough. There have been at least 10 shootings this year on top of drug deals and burglaries. So neighbors keep their eyes open.

Near the intersection of South Burgess Avenue and Freemont Street, Terrance Shazier and a friend tinker under the hood of a car.

“I watch four houses this way and four houses that way,” Shazier said.

Shazier installed cameras on his house after his car was been broken into several times. But can he tell the difference between a neighbor just acting a little strange and “real” trouble.

“I mean you gotta get out here and know your neighbors…You know, we ask questions,” he said. “People ask questions, like, who was that? What are they doing? A lot of people do that. When the elderly ask you questions, that’s when you step your game up and try to find out what’s going on.”

When Shazier calls police, they come, but he said sometimes they are a little too slow.

“When you hear gun shots like that and it’s right around the corner, you’re like, wait a minute, what’s going on? And you see [police] driving slow through the neighborhood, like, way after the fact. People done walked through. People done ran,” Shazier said. “And then they get here, and it’s like, what happened if somebody got shot?…It’s the police; they need to step their game up.”

But not everyone thinks police react too slowly.

“The police respond pretty good up here,” Sharon Bland, who lives on South Terrace Avenue, said as she waited for a visit from her mom.

“The area is, it’s gone downhill.”

Like many others we talked to, Bland watches neighbor’s goings-on. But it was difficult for her to pinpoint exactly what kind of odd behavior would prompt her to call police.

“Anything abnormal,” she guessed.

Columbus Police Officer Kelly Kasser responds to a lot of the calls on the Hilltop. She knows the neighborhood; she’s patrolled it for nine years.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of stuff,” Kasser chuckled.

Kasser said every run is different. Good training, time on the streets and tips from neighbors help her to know when a situation could mean “real trouble.”

“With talking to a lot of people, a lot of their mannerisms,” Kasser said. “You can get a lot by talking to somebody and knowing something’s not right. And there’s a lot of things they can control about a situation and a lot of things they cannot. And those are cues you need to pick up on as an officer.”

Kasser also trusts her instincts when she arrives on a call.

“If my gut’s telling me something’s not right I follow it to a tee because I know I need to be doing something,” she said. “It might not be an instant fix at that time, but I make sure I know who that person is, maybe follow up with a detective to see if there’s anything that they have on this guy that I don’t know about. And maybe it’s just somebody we need to keep an eye on.”

As for complaints of slow response, Kasser noted the Hilltop is the city’s busiest precinct. But she said good, descriptive tips from the public can help speed response.

“Don’t assume we always know what’s going on because they’re our eyes and ears initially. They’re the ones there 24-7, we’re not.”

The South Side near Children’s Hospital is another rough neighborhood. The area as had as many as 20 shootings so far this year.

Dave Thomas lives on Heyl Avenue, east of Parsons. Thomas feels pretty confident he’d be able to recognize when something’s not quite right.

“I got good neighbors. I know what time they’re coming out every day, yeah. But a dysfunctional person? You hardly ever see [them].”

But like others, Thomas criticizes police response times. And he wonders if it’s because the neighborhood is largely African American and crime riddled.

“If I was staying in Hilliard, Bexley, I’m not prejudice because my son, he’s bi-racial, you know, I know that they’ll respond quicker when it comes to a Caucasian person, than when it comes to, this is just my opinion, maybe I’m wrong, to a black person,” Thomas said.

Brendan O’Keefe is fixing up his home on Oakwood Avenue just north of Livingston. O’Keefe said if he did see something suspicious he would call police until he got a response. But he’s uncertain what kind of response he’d get.

“I don’t know. Police respond to me pretty well usually. So, I don’t know. I really don’t,” he said. “All the police I’ve dealt with in this neighborhood have always been nice and helpful.”

Officer Joseph Valiski has patrolled the area south of Children’s Hospital for five years.

Like fellow Officer Kasser, Valiski uses various information sources – training, neighbors, previous calls – when assessing a situation that could be more serious, including gut instinct.

“Something that’s going on in your body, sometimes the hairs stick up on the back of your neck and you kind of got to go with that gut instinct,” Valiski said.

Neighbors promised to keep an eye out, to work with police, but they agreed that what happened in Cleveland could happen on their streets.