Channel 4: Attacked in Hemming Plaza

83 incidents reported to police in past year; restaurant owner may relocate

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One of Channel 4 reporter Jim Piggott's beats is City Hall, so he spends a lot of time just outside doing interviews and live reports.  That would be Hemming Plaza -- one of the city's most visible parks.

The park is also a regular hangout for many of Jacksonville's homeless -- something a city committee is trying to change by banning card playing and removing tables and chairs.  The city is also discussing opening a day shelter for the homeless to give them a place to go other than the park.

For several months, Piggott has documented the problems at Hemming Plaza firsthand. For example, in June, one of Channel 4's vans was vandalized: A man threw a brick through the windshield and tried to set it on fire while a photographer was inside.

That man was arrested and charged with arson, but he has been found incompetent to stand trial.  He was ordered to receive treatment and return to court in April to see if he was able to be put on trial.

On another occasion in Hemming Plaza, Piggott was verbally harassed and even spit on.  That man was banned from the park.

Police say this kind of thing happens all the time in Hemming Plaza.  Channel 4 documented 83 incidents ranging from assault to intimidation to making threats between September of 2011 to September 2012.

Downtown restaurant owner Jerry Moran is now about moving his downtown businesses.

"Those are just criminal bums. They are vagrants and they need to go," Moran said. "And I can't understand why the city, after all the screaming and crying that I have done, they won't clean up the front steps of City Hall. It's a disgrace."

The city knows there's a problem. A special committee made up of council members and homeless activist have been working for the past year to recommend changes for the park.  The most controversial has been the plan to ban card playing and removing table and chairs.

City Councilman Reggie Brown says some of that seems unfair.

"I am really concerned about the treatment of the individuals that visit the park. There is a misconception that it's just homeless people," Brown said. "In this park, you have individuals that hallucinate. They attack individuals. It happens all the time that is why we have a need for law enforcement."

Brown says the city needs to push forward with plans for a day shelter for the homeless -- something Mayor Alvin Brown wants to see happen in the next few months.

Karen Bowling of the mayor's office says they are looking at several sites near downtown for a permanent day shelter.

"Not everyone in Hemming Plaza is homeless but they chose to spend a good part of the day in the park," Bowling said. "So we want to offer an alternative, to services like mail, laundry and showers and to capture some of the things that draw them to Hemming Plaza."

Bowling can't say what it will cost for a day shelter, and not everyone thinks it's even a good idea.

Assistant Chief Michelle Cook of the Jacksonville Sheriff's office says downtown is a bad location for the shelter.

"I think what the city needs is what Sheriff Rutherford has been proposing, which is a remote misdemeanor release center in a remote part of town."

Since Hemming Plaza is a gateway to City Hall, the main library and the Federal Courthouse, Channel 4 crime expert Ken Jefferson has advice for those who find themselves accosted.

"Try and get away from that person as quick as possible. Contact 911. Give them that information once they connect with you," Jefferson said, adding that the last thing someone should do is challenge the person.

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