Westgate Watch members create network to track crime while asking more of city leaders

Westgate residents say the park has become the epicenter of the property crimes, narcotics distribution and prostitution they contend plagues the neighborhood located west of Downtown Columbus.

Eric Lagatta
The Columbus Dispatch
Members of the Westgate Watch Facebook group, which includes more than 650 people, gather at Westgate Park. In addition to being neighborly lookouts, the neighborhood watch group reports criminal activity among its members who share security video and evidence of crimes among themselves and with police.
  • In response, more than 650 residents are part of Westgate Watch, a novel approach to the blockwatch
  • The two-year-old community crime prevention organization relies on surveillance to track crime
  • Members are also asking for more from city leaders to remedy the problems they experience

Most nights, J.R. McMillan can gaze out his front window at Westgate Park across the street and spot the unmistakable flickering orange glow of fire within the shelter house.

In his mind, the smoldering flames send an unambiguous message to those who prowl the streets while most others sleep: While the park may be technically closed, other illicit enterprises are open for business. If any doubt remains about what takes place in the park in the cover of night, McMillan said, the used condoms, discarded syringes and blackened foil he finds strewn about the grounds the next day should put it to rest.

Some residents of Westgate say the park has become the epicenter of the property crimes, narcotics distribution and prostitution they say can be rampant in the Hilltop-area neighborhood 4 miles west of Downtown Columbus.

J.R. McMillan, middle, talks to Peggy Fahy, front, during an informal in-person meeting of the Westgate Watch Facebook group, which in total includes more than 650 people, at Westgate Park on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. In addition to being neighborly lookouts, the neighborhood watch group reports criminal activity among its members who share security video and evidence of crimes amongst themselves and to police.

But many neighbors aren't sitting idle or relying solely on Columbus police and city leaders to deal with their concerns. Instead, more than 650 residents count themselves among the ranks of Westgate Watch, a two-year-old community crime-prevention organization that relies heavily on technology to capture evidence of illegal activity.

“We know the onus is on us,” said McMillan, 47, a member since the group was founded in September 2018. “The city can only do so much; police can only do so much.”

What problems does the Westgate neighborhood face?

Areas mostly around the borders of Westgate — itself bounded by West Broad Street to the north, Demorest Road to the west, Sullivant Avenue to the south, and Hague Avenue to the east — have been the site of targeted police enforcement, nuisance property citations and other city interventions.

Residents say that problems in the surrounding Hilltop neighborhoods can spill over into Westgate, particularly at the park. Columbus police have made more than 500 runs to the park alone since January 2019, according to records from the Columbus Division of Police.

More:Columbus police helicopters, once under scrutiny, get new $900,000 maintenance contract

Many times, records show, police have been called for reports of a suspicious person, an unknown complaint, or a disturbance. Not as common, but still routine, are reports of assaults, gunshots, drug activity, robberies, fist fights, people with guns, and wanted felons in the area.

Serious problems? Of course.

Although residents in Westgate Watch demand a stronger police presence, Sgt. Fred Brophy said officers who patrol the 19th precinct, which includes Westgate Park and the Hilltop, often are tied up handling serious priority calls east of Hague Avenue.

Several members of the Westgate Watch Facebook group, which in total includes more than 650 people, gather at Westgate Park on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. In addition to being neighborly lookouts, the neighborhood watch group reports criminal activity among its members who share security video and evidence of crimes amongst themselves and to police.

“On the other side of Hague Avenue, those exact same officers are handling stabbings, shootings, robberies,” said Brophy, who leads a team of 10 officers who comprise the Community Response Team in Zone 3. The zone extends from Franklinton through the Hilltop to beyond I-270. “Serious crimes are occurring on the other side of Hague Avenue, and we take the more serious crimes first.”

How did the Westgate Watch get started?

McMillan moved to Westgate three years ago with his family, leaving behind a home they built on the municipal limits of New Albany. The house they bought in Westgate had been abandoned for three years and neglected for much longer, as evidenced by the kicked-in doors and the raccoons living in the basement.

McMillan was aware the neighborhood had its struggles, but he said the problems started almost right away and only escalated from there.

Early on, McMillan said, a thief pulled the siding back from their garage to cut through the wall, open the door from the inside and steal a lawnmower and several tools. Within the first few months of home renovations, someone whose phone was stolen at the park beat on his door with a baseball bat, assuming that’s where the thief fled because the house still looked abandoned.

Fed up, McMillan joined the fledgling Westgate Watch, which has since grown to include one in three neighborhood residents as members.

What does the neighborhood watch group do?

As its membership has grown, Westgate Watch has established an intricate security surveillance network that allows the group to track suspects and crimes through a “camera collective” that delivers real-time information — suspect descriptions and vehicle makes, model, and license plates — to neighbors, and documents evidence of crime for law enforcement. More than 200 members have surveillance systems for monitoring the neighborhood's many alleyways and side streets, said Kelly McKinney, an original member who often assists other members in installing home security systems.

Not too long ago, the group was able to share surveillance footage to piece together the movements of a suspected hit-and-run driver in a stolen vehicle they say led to an arrest. More recently, they've been tracking a group of youths who they say have been terrorizing the neighborhood by shooting at passersby with paintball guns.

“Nobody can leave our neighborhood or come into our neighborhood without us knowing exactly how they came into our neighborhood and how they left,” said McKinney, who has lived in Westgate with his wife, Mary, since 2005. “We have actually worked very vigilantly to increase and maintain a better quality of life and our community really rallies around that."

Recently, they launched their own streamlined 311 reporting process for problem properties with a history of repeated police response. Members claim that because the form doesn't require a person's name or contact info, it's more anonymous and safe than the city's.

Many city leaders praised Westgate Watch's efforts, and said the organization could serve as a model for neighborhood-watch groups across Columbus.

“They’ve built an incredible network of advocates for the neighborhood,” said Melissa Green, a neighborhood liaison in the West Side with the Columbus Department of Neighborhoods. “I think the work they do is symbolic of this spirit of community and cooperation and resiliency here.” 

What else does Westgate want from the city of Columbus?

But Westgate Watch members aren't seeking praise. They're asking for the city's help to combat and deter troublemakers. Members have had extensive email conversations with many city leaders they that they say have been productive but with fleeting results.

“We know it’s impossible for the city to be everywhere; we know it’s impossible for the police to be everywhere, but we’re already here,” McMillan said. “When there’s a pattern that starts to emerge we expect to eventually receive attention."

On May 11, Westgate Watch provided to The Dispatch a letter that the group said was sent to every member of Columbus City Council reiterating longstanding demands — including that the city replace lights in Westgate Park, enforce park hours and remove porta-potties that they suspect serve as drops for drug deals.

The group has long demanded access to Shotspotter data, which police say they can't provide — not only because they say it's investigatory information, but also because it's  proprietary and not their data to disseminate.

Jenny Janey, left, speaks to Kelly McKinney during an informal meeting of the Westgate Watch Facebook group, which includes more than 650 people, at Westgate Park. In addition to being neighborly lookouts, the neighborhood watch group reports criminal activity among its members who share security video and evidence of crimes among themselves and with police.

How are officials responding to demands for more help?

In a prepared statement provided to The Dispatch in response to questions about the concerns Westgate residents have raised, Columbus City Council President Pro Tem Elizabeth Brown indicated that she had reviewed the letter from Westgate residents and is discussing solutions with the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department. The parks department recently added lighting to Westgate Park's shelter house and the adjacent parking lot, and routinely works with police to resolve issues reported at the park, Brown said.

"We want all our parks to be safe and accessible places for families to enjoy and we take these concerns seriously," Brown said in the written statement.

When provided the letter by The Dispatch, Green, of the Department of Neighborhoods, said it was the first formal communication she received from the Westgate Watch.

Last week, Green coordinated with Columbus Public Health for health professionals to speak with residents about mental health, addiction and other issues they may have. And she asked the Columbus Division of Fire to send a team to Westgate Park last Tuesday to help individuals struggling with substance abuse.

“I'm working hard to be responsive to concerns that have been raised,” Green said.

After The Dispatch made the Columbus Division of Police aware of the letter, Cmdr. Tim Myers of Zone 3 indicated that a "Safe Streets Team" bike patrol will be assigned to the park for the summer to increase interaction with park-goers. When possible, patrol officers in the precinct also will park in one of the Westgate Park lots to complete reports and other paper work, further increasing police presence at the park.

But though police plan to ramp up their patrol presence in the neighborhood, Sgt. Brophy said officers aren't looking to confront park-goers about non-violent nuisance complaints such as loud music. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, they also have been requested to prioritize issuing a summons for a court date to first-time non-violent offenders who they arrest instead of hauling them to the Franklin County jail.

“We want to be really hesitant about how much we enforce these things because some of it is people wanting to enjoy a city asset," Brophy said. "We’d rather take a softer approach to these quality of life issues.”

Westgate Watch members welcome such initiatives, but they say their communication with city officials go back much further than the May 11 letter.

Jenny Janey, right, speaks to J.R. McMillan and Peggy Fahy during a recent meeting of the Westgate Watch Facebook group.

Last year, the group was instrumental in providing evidence to City Attorney Zach Klein's office that led to an apartment unit outside of Westgate's boundaries on Racine Avenue — the scene of a fatal shooting and alleged drug and prostitution ring — being boarded up in late January. According to emails provided to The Dispatch, Westgate Watch first made Klein's office aware of the problems at 641 Racine Avenue on Aug. 13, 2020.

“Having an engaged group like the Westgate Watch, that’s important for us to have those relationships to get intel,” Klein told The Dispatch. “I truly, as a city attorney, value all of the citizen participation because people care deeply about their neighborhoods.”

Kelly McKinney, middle, speaks with several members of the Westgate Watch Facebook group during a recent gathering.

Residents such as McMillan and McKinney aren't native to Westgate, but they have developed an affinity for the area and the community they now call home. It's why they stay, despite the safety issues the face, the disturbances they endure and the stolen property they lose.

“We’re so much more connected to our neighbors and our neighborhood than we ever were in the suburbs,” McMillan said. “These issues aside, we can’t think of anywhere else in Columbus that we would want to live.” 

elagatta@dispatch.com

@EricLagatta