Private patrols coming to University Park

By Phil Trexler
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published: February 6, 2012
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The University Park Alliance, with funding from the Knight Foundation, will pay a security firm about $300,000 a year for private patrols of the neighborhood on the southern edge of the University of Akron campus from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

With billions of dollars at stake, a safe walk down a University Park street is imperative.

Come midnight tonight, a private security force will debut around the southern edge of the University of Akron campus to help protect this redeveloping neighborhood.

Residents and business owners in the 15 city blocks are being prepped for the new presence. Uniformed officers will be walking the streets, driving in SUVs and, when weather permits, riding bicycles.

The nonprofit University Park Alliance, with major funding from the Knight Foundation, is paying a security firm about $300,000 a year for the service. Five guards will patrol the area from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday. Eight will be on duty during the same hours Thursday through Saturday.

For now, the patrols will encompass a quadrant in the area between Spicer and Grant streets from East Exchange south toward Power Street. Signs are already up at the University Park Safe Neighborhood Center at 491 Brown St.

The private officers from G4S Secure Solutions will not be armed, nor will they have arrest powers. What they will have are eyes and ears geared toward deterring crime and blight. Officers will have direct radio contact with Akron police as well as University of Akron police and serve as a support system for law enforcement and residents.

“The objective is to be fully ingrained in the community,” said Eric Anthony Johnson, the alliance’s executive director. “The issue of public safety is important for everybody. We see public safety as the anchor of a great place to live and work.”

The community comprises more than UA students. The alliance’s goal is to transform 50 blocks of the city surrounding the campus and make the neighborhood a vibrant, urban community that attracts professionals and families.

Millions of dollars have already been invested and recent studies undertaken by the alliance show a potential economic impact of more than $1.8 billion a year – and $90 million in tax revenue – by the year 2030. That is on top of $2.5 billion annually produced by the alliance’s main anchors: UA and the city’s three hospitals and other businesses.

Akron police Chief James Nice said he welcomes the extra help that he said can only provide better safety for residents as well as his officers. The private officers will provide escorts for pedestrians, report suspicious activity, deter panhandlers and take note of unsafe or blighted buildings.

“[It’s] a visual deterrent for the would-be criminals [that] gives the community an extra set of eyes and ears,” Nice said. “This is beneficial not only to the residents in the neighborhood, but also to the officers working the neighborhoods.”

UA police Chief Paul Callahan could not be reached for comment.

Johnson, a resident of University Park, said he believes the urban neighborhood is already a safe place to live and work, despite a public perception fueled by occasional burglaries or robberies.

“I think the perception is greater than reality,” he said.

Public safety serves as an anchor to any thriving development, he said.

With the alliance’s goal of transforming the neighborhood, it must also convey a strong public safety agenda.

He dismissed the notion that the security force would serve as neighborhood ambassadors, such as the workers in blue and yellow jackets who walk beats around downtown Akron. Instead, the officers, many with military backgrounds, will convey strength in numbers and give the neighborhood a safety force presence and serve as a symbol that crime will not be tolerated, he said.

The patrols may eventually spread deeper into the 50-block development region.“What we’re saying to people is if you’re looking to commit criminal acts in University Park, that’s not acceptable,” Johnson said.Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or ptrexler@thebeaconjournal.com.