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Residents are looking for ways to reduce property crimes and build community.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia City has a population of roughly 1,985 as of 2021.Columbia City residents are looking for community-based ways to address crime happening in the city.

The city has seen an uptick in thefts earlier this year. Sgt. Gerald Bartolomucci said there were 20 thefts reported in the city in the 10-month period up to May 2021. Seven of those were over the course of a few weeks in spring 2021.

Even with the increase, Columbia City had the lowest per-capita theft rate of any city in the county, based on theft report data provided by Bartolomucci in a letter to residents.

Jaime Smith, a Columbia City resident for 15 years, has been talking to city officials about what residents can do to prevent future crimes.

Smith said she doesn't necessarily want to see a formal neighborhood watch system with residents scheduled to patrol their neighborhoods. Rather, her focus is on creating more of a community sense in the mostly residential city.

Smith said that neighbors on her block have formed a close-knit community. When one resident was away from home for medical issues, neighbors mowed their lawn and kept an eye on the empty house, Smith said.

If an ambulance comes to their neighbor's home, residents will stop by to ask if there's anything they can do.

"Not to pry or to babysit, but just to be a good neighbor," Smith explained.

Smith said she wants more connections to form between the older residents of Columbia City and the younger families that move in.

Residents gathered at the community hall in June to discuss the possibility of a neighborhood watch program. Smith estimated 20 to 25 people were in attendance. Another meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 12, also at the community hall, where residents will flesh out what they want a public safety program to look like.

"A neighborhood watch is nice, and we can make it as big or as little as we want it," Smith said. "But really, ultimately, my goal is how do we come together as a community?"

Smith also said she wants to avoid any system of vigilante justice. Some residents who own firearms have said they're prepared to defend themselves, but Smith noted that children in the community "do really stupid stuff from time to time" — a combination that could end in tragedy.

Smith said she thinks community Facebook groups and other social media has increased people's awareness of local crimes, even when criminal activity hasn't increased.

"I don't personally feel like there has been an increase at alarming rates or anything like that," Smith said of her 15 years in Columbia City.

In the letter to residents, Bartolomucci said most of the thefts appeared to be crimes of opportunity, where valuable items were left in yards, unlocked cars, or open garages.

"A few small changes such as bringing in items of value, securing out buildings with a lock, adding exterior motion lights, and cutting back bushes that can be used to hide behind, will make your residence a much safer place," Bartolomucci advised.

City Administrator Michael McGlothlin said that the increase in crimes hasn't continued.

"After that uptick, we did have a slight lull with some scattered property crimes reported," said McGlothlin, who served as Columbia City's chief of police from 2009 to 2018.

Bartolomucci is currently the city's only full-time police officer.

The city also has three reserve officers, volunteers who undergo training and spend at least 16 hours per month with the department, and two part-time officers. All together, the department's staffing is equivalent to three full-time officers.

The city is in the process of hiring an additional full-time officer and is considering two of the existing reserve officers for the position, McGlothlin said.

The police department receives funding from a local option levy of 67 cents per $1,000 in assessed value, which amounts to roughly $130,000 in a typical year.

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