Efforts to address Opelika’s recent crime surge are starting to show results, according to Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller.
The mayor teamed up with various church, business, community and political leaders and local law enforcement to form the Commission on Crime and Violence last year. Its mission is to make residents feel safer and communicate better with their neighbors.
“When the mayor put the commission together in August of 2018, unfortunately a month prior to that, we had three homicides in about a 10-day period,” said John McEachern, Opelika’s police chief. “Although one murder is too many, but we’ve only had one murder this year.”
McEachern said that across the board, offenses like violent assaults, robbery and rape are down as much as 50 percent over last year. However, he does note that car break-ins have become an issue, though many don’t involve forced entry since the vehicles were left unlocked.
There also have been a few cases of transient crime in which officers have arrested people from Montgomery, Atlanta, Birmingham, Phenix City and Columbus.
“Our goal is to do away with it all, but obviously, … you’re never going to completely wipe out crime,” McEachern said. “The officers and staff that I have, and the detectives, I’d match them up against anyone.”
Fuller said that as important as it is for residents to feel safe in their own city, it’s important for visitors to feel safe as well and to have a good experience in the city — especially as it relates to the city’s international partners.
He credits a portion of the commission’s success to the secret witness hotline where people can anonymously report information relating to a crime to the police. Whereas witnesses or informants have been hesitant to come forward in the past, the hotline eliminates fear of retaliation.
The commission is divided into four areas of focus: resources, headed by City Council President Eddie Smith; family, headed by McEachern; youths, headed by Councilwoman Tiffany Gibson-Pitts; and education, headed by Councilwoman Patsy Jones.
The family focus is in the final development stages of a community initiative called Neighbors.
“It’s going to teach folks how to be good neighbors, how to have and understand empathy, and to rebuild the culture of neighborhoods and the culture of trust,” Fuller said.
City Council allotted $331,000 more to Opelika City Schools in this year’s budget for the development and implementation of the state’s new First Class Pre-K program, to begin next fall.
There will be five classes to start, and admission will be based on a lottery at a first, but Fuller said he is hoping to eventually have enough of the classrooms to where every child can attend.
Southern Union State Community College has also developed two new programs to assist the commission’s education area. Its ASCEND program helps students prepare for careers in advanced manufacturing; lining them up as “preferred candidates” when local industry partners.
The college also has the Pathways to Productive Employment program, which works with local courts to identify select offenders. Participants can do job training through ASCEND, complete community service and even receive treatment for addiction, if needed.
Fuller said he and the commission’s appointees understood that the city’s crime wouldn’t be eradicated overnight, but is proud of the progress that has been made.
“Everyone saw how this community came to the aid of the Lee County residents after the tornadoes,” he said. “Everybody rises to the occasion in Opelika.”