Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith says he notices a pattern in the city’s recent violent crime uptick — the victims of one case are often the suspects in another.
Since October, he said his department has responded to 200 calls of shots fired, resulting in more than 14 injuries and a total of four deaths. Smith, Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe, Russell County District Attorney Kenneth Davis and Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church Pastor Noble Williams held a news conference Friday morning to discuss the recent increases.
“We’re talking about this unusual place that we find ourselves in that the majority of the violent crime that we’re having over the last several months is related to the violent crime that just recently happened,” Smith said. “We are doing what we can to try to stay ahead of this violent crime surge.”
What are the problems?
Smith outlined several problems contributing to the increases. A majority of the shootings have been drive-bys where someone will unload “a magazine of bullets” into a home, he said. Sometimes they hit their target and sometimes they don’t.
Since October, 150 car break-ins have been reported, resulting in 30 guns being stolen. To date, police have only recovered one firearm, and those guns could be used for criminal activity, Smith said.
“Our message to you as a law enforcement agency is please, please, please take your firearms out of your vehicle and secure them in a safe or some other secure location inside your home,” he said. “These weapons become a problem when they get out on the street.”
Smith also said street gangs are using social media platforms to recruit new members and issue threats, like posting photos with “large amounts of money, guns and drug paraphernalia.”
Davis, the Russell County DA, blamed “drugs, guns and poverty” for recent crimes as he described a recent shooting in which a teenager with two guns fired more than 35 rounds and killed a man sitting in his car.
“I have been a prosecutor here 42 years and District Attorney 38 years. I have never seen anything like what is going on in our community,” he said.
Recent U.S. Census data estimates about 58,000 people live in Russell County, and Coroner Arthur Sumbry, Jr. told the Ledger-Enquirer a total of five homicides have been reported this year. About 196,000 live in Muscogee County, and 8 homicides have been reported so far in Columbus for 2021.
Further complicating prosecution efforts is the COVID-19 pandemic which has halted some court proceedings. Davis said 37 pending murder cases are waiting to go to trial.
“We hope to have some in March,” he said. “We have five consecutive weeks of trial assuming that the COVID situation doesn’t get worse.”
What can residents do to help?
Smith encouraged residents to submit anonymous tips and information through the Phenix City Police Department’s phone app or by emailing the department at firstname.lastname@example.org. Residents can also submit tips through CrimeStoppers.
Smith said he understands residents may not want to come forward, but it is a tremendous help when they do.
“If you have a Ring doorbell or a security system in your home and you know there’s been a crime or shooting or drive-by shooting in your neighborhood … please provide us with documentation of that video,” he said.
Williams prayed that those involved in the city’s crimes would take a moment to think about what effects their actions might have on family members and friends. He encouraged those committing crimes to reach out to him, the NAACP and other organizations for mentorship.
Lowe called on the Phenix City community to lift each other up and work with local law enforcement to stop these crimes.
“We certainly need to be proactive as a community,” he said. “To the families that have dealt with this, I want to say on behalf of the Mayor of Phenix City, I am so sorry. But it’s time for you and all of us to step up and put an end to these senseless things that are happening.”