SOUTH BEND — Does downtown South Bend have a perception problem?
One notable downtown business owner believes so — even if it’s unwarranted.
“There’s a perception that there’s panhandlers and crime or at least that it’s run down,” said Mark McDonnell, owner of LaSalle Grill and president of the Down-town Dining Alliance of South Bend. “People think Mishawaka is safe and South Bend is Sodom and Gomorah. That it’s terrible.”
“We’re trying to change the perception that it’s not a dangerous place.”
McDonnell said Thursday that he and other business owners have complained for years about increasing police enforcement downtown to make potential customers who enter the city more comfortable with their surroundings.
It appears he’ll get his wish.
Police and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced this week plans to add additional downtown patrols starting this month to go through the summer and fall and stopping in winter.
South Bend police — as well as McDonnell — said they haven’t noticed a recent uptick in violence or pan-handling in the downtown area, but as a precaution, police would like to keep it that way.
The extra enforcement will come in the form of officers patrolling on foot, bike, car or even on one of the department’s two T3 vehicles.
Although police have in-creased enforcement in the past for specific stretches, this is the most “aggressive” to date, Capt. Phil Trent, South Bend police spokes-man, said.
“There’s a perception more than anything else that there’s a criminal element to downtown,” Trent said. “We are going to do our best to be responsive to any public safety issues in the down-town area.”
Trent added there’s a perception of panhandlers, some of whom are aggressive, and substance abusers in the downtown area — and not so much violent crime.
“We’re trying to change that perception,” he said. “Perception is something we have to be cognizant of.”
Police did not know all of the details regarding the enforcement. Trent could not say how often or how many officers will be added to the area, but added it could be a combination of officers on their regular shift, or even overtime hours. The enforcement, Trent said, is paid for through money put aside for special patrols.
At least one South Bend officer was spotted on his bike in the downtown area on Thursday.
“It will be customer-driven,” Trent said of the enforcement. “Did we get complaints, or have we seen an uptick?”
“It will be judged, number one, by the weather,” he added. “And number two, the amount of foot traffic.”
Buttigieg said during his state of the city speech Wednesday night that downtown will see a more visible presence to “make people feel safe,” which includes bike patrols in the central area and “walk-with-a-cop” initiative in the city’s neighborhoods.
The latter, according to Buttigieg, will encourage officers to get out of their squad cars to interact with the residents they serve.
Trent, meanwhile, said the department heard from downtown business owners who wanted to see more officers downtown.
“Business owners are customers,” he said. “We’ve heard from lots of them.”
Including McDonnell, who said the patrols should be conducted year round in-stead of through the fall.
Terry Meehan, co-owner of Fiddler’s Hearth, said the patrols are “very much welcome,” even though he added the downtown as a whole has improved of late.
“It’s very positive,” he said.
Aaron Perri, executive director of Downtown South Bend, said the presence only makes sense.
“Fourteen thousand people work down here daily,” he said. “It really is the hub of entertainment. It’s important to make sure there are proactive type things in place.”
The downtown area is “loosely” referred to as Leeper Park to the north, Sample Street and the Coveleski Stadium area to the South, Lafayette Boulevard and Scott Street area to the west and the East Race and Howard Park area to the east, Trent said.
Staff writer Tom Moor: