The recently formed Centralia Public Safety Task Force came before the city council Tuesday to give recommendations on how the city could proceed with making the downtown core safer for everyone.
The task force was created on March 22 at the behest of Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston, Councilor Sarah Althauser and Mayor Pro Tem Cameron McGee to address what they called an extreme uptick in public safety concerns in Centralia’s downtown core.
Task force member Mary McHale said the group completed its work over the course of two 90-minute meetings.
“At the first meeting, the task force members decided to keep the focus on the downtown core,” McHale told the council. “While I know there are some other safety challenges happening in other parts of the city, given the folks that we have on the task force, we thought it would make more sense if we focused our recommendations on that downtown core.”
The task force developed a draft of the recommendations it would bring before the city council at the first meeting and revisited them in the second.
Trespassing, harassment, public defecation, urination and vomiting were discussed as issues, as well as access to housing, health care and public bathrooms, McHale said.
“As we are stepping through these recommendations tonight, all of the task force members view these recommendations as being both actionable and meaningful and they effectively address the public safety concerns that are being expressed downtown,” she said.
The task force identified several actions the council could take immediately, including putting officers on bikes downtown during the spring and summer; placing unmanned patrol cars on the streets for short-term deterrent of crime; partnering with a local church to swing through town assisting individuals sleeping in doorways and the like; and fostering relationships between the merchants and mental health professionals.
It also identified ways local merchants and residents can protect themselves, including having merchants file letters with the police department for serial trespassers; having merchants call the Lewis County Crisis Line to help individuals who may be in crisis; for merchants to call the police department when they see a crime taking place; and for merchants and residents to receive mental health first aid training.
The task force also proposed taking concerns before the state Legislature to lobby it to create more opportunities for housing and sober environments for folks to reside following a stay in an in-patient facility that addresses substance use.
Finally, the task force identified systemic issues that the city could work to address — issues that may be underlying factors in criminal activity, including the relative absence of sober housing and community outreach. McHale suggested the police department create a crisis response unit.
After the recommendations were made, the sponsors of the initiative weighed in on the task force’s progress.
“I just want to thank everybody,” McGee said. “It’s a lot to take on in the conversation and I think you guys did excellently.”
Althauser also thanked the group.
“I’ve talked to many downtown neighbors and merchants and I know this is very timely,” she said. “I just like the teamwork that you guys are doing, so thank you very much.”
Smith Johnston told the task force the council will take the recommendations under advisement.
“I think we are committed to putting together an action plan and bringing it back to the council, maybe a workshop to get your input on that as well, and move forward with any or all recommendations,” she said.