There’s a new sheriff in town. But this sheriff doesn’t have a badge, a squad car or a bulletproof vest. He’s not even armed.
Patrick McConnell patrols a 25-block area in downtown Macon by foot every day, keeping a watchful eye on the city’s homeless and ne’er-do-wells. If a problem arises, he solves it.
It’s his job as coordinator of NewTown Macon’s City Watch program.
McConnell, 36, has been helping keep the streets safe since he assumed the post in April. His clientele include drifters, panhandlers, delinquents and drug dealers.
“I’m sort of like a downtown problem-solver,” he said.
While on duty, McConnell carries only a cell phone and digital camera. He has a direct line to Sgt. Willie Brown with the Macon Police Department in the event he needs assistance from law enforcement.
If he sees someone breaking the law, McConnell will notify the authorities.
If someone needs shelter or food, he’ll point that individual in the direction of the appropriate aid agency. Usually, he sends people to the Salvation Army on Broadway or the Loaves and Fishes Ministry on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“Most of the individuals I deal with already know where to receive aid, but I try to help them anyway,” he said.
Sgt. Brown said the work McConnell has done with City Watch has boosted the efficiency of police efforts in arresting panhandlers and people with open containers.
“McConnell has served as our eyes and ears for downtown,” Brown said. “Because of his work, there’s not as many rule-breakers in the immediate downtown area as there used to be.”
McConnell said he has befriended quite a few of downtown’s homeless in the past three months.
He’s met characters such as “Mr. Winters,” the cross-dresser who boasts about his singing abilities and marketing expertise, and the “Cherry Street Lady,” a petite elderly woman who is scared people will steal her medications.
“They all have stories to tell,” he said. “I try to wear street clothes so I’ll fit in and they’ll talk to me.”
McConnell said he’s made his share of enemies, too. Many of the city’s beggars think he’s with the police and will shout slurs such as “pig” and “5-0” as he walks past.
“A homeless lady walked up to me a while back when I was outside a friend’s house downtown and looked at me and said ‘I know who you are. People know you’re working to clean up the streets. You need to watch yourself,’ ” McConnell said. “I was shocked someone recognized me.”
But the husband and father of seven said he’s not worried about his safety, because he thinks most of Macon’s drifters are harmless.
“As I’ve talked to vagrants downtown, they’re not dangerous. They usually stay to themselves, besides the occasional panhandler who approaches you,” he said.
McConnell, who lives downtown on Maple Street, said the rewards that come from his job far outweigh the risks.
“Macon is a very unique and beautiful place. I want to see it become all it can be and for the populous to explode downtown,” he said.
In order for that to happen, McConnell said, perceptions about downtown security will have to change.
“People have this image in their head that downtown’s unsafe, that it’s full of crime and fighting,” he said.
“That couldn’t be more wrong. I live here. I work here. I attend church here. I raise my family here. I want to make the streets feel safer so other people will realize that it’s safe, too.”
As part of McConnell’s job with City Watch, he’s also started to tackle the town’s graffiti problem by photographing and documenting graffiti that needs to be removed. Pretty soon, he’ll have the equipment to start removing the graffiti himself.
Kris Hattaway with NewTown Macon said she’s already noticed a drop in the vagrancy downtown since McConnell started the job.
“Patrick’s done wonders in making the city feel cleaner and safer,” she said.
“If this is any indication, the City Watch program has already been very successful.”
To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.