Ongoing problems at an area shopping center were the focus of discussion at the Stephenville City Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting Tuesday.
Officials with the police department presented a loitering ordinance for consideration in an effort to cut down on teen traffic and help area business owners regain control of their storefronts. The committee voted unanimously to forward the ordinance to city council for a vote.
Lt. Jason Halsey, who works the night shift and has been with the police department since 1999, said dealing with loitering at Bosque River Center has always been a part of his beat. He said Friday and Saturday nights are a big problem and although summer months see an increase in loiterers, the issue is year round.
The problem, Halsey said, is not only that teens, typically boys and girls 12 to 16 years old, hang out in the parking area and at the entrances of the businesses, the concern is issues that tend to follow.
It is common to see an officer at the shopping center, and Halsey said the purpose of the police presence is to “deter violence, property crimes and gang activity.” Despite a common misconception that there are no gangs in Stephenville, Halsey said there is gang traffic, coming mainly from Dublin and DeLeon.
Police Chief Roy Halsell said the department has tried several approaches to managing the situation including special attention from beat officers who cover two night shifts, but had no success. V.W. Stephens, the complex’s owner, has requested additional assistance in deterring the nuisance.
Halsell said shop owners are also voicing their complaints.
“The businesses that are open during the problem hours have complained that the young people roam the stores and cause damage and commit thefts,” Halsell said. “They also have problems with the kids hanging out and intimidating shoppers and employees.”
Shop owners claim the teens also cause a decline in sales.
“Business drops off on those nights because of the feeling of intimidation,” Halsell said.
Halsell reminded the council about an incident several years ago at Whataburger when an older, after hours crowd of more than 300 people gathered in the parking lot. He said officers arrested one angry party-goer who had a gun and said the situation was “almost a full-scale riot.”
Since the incident, Whataburger has employed off-duty officers as security guards and the city allows the officers to take their squad cars as an added deterrent.
The committee was presented a letter from Stephens that expressed the property owner’s and merchants’ concern about the lack of a loitering ordinance.
Stephens said in the last year alone, the center has been vandalized with repair costs exceeding $4,000.
“Almost each week, graffiti appears,” Stephens said. “There have also been complaints from citizens concerned for their safety. The problem has escalated to the point that many tenants are voicing the proposal to hire private security.”
In the past six months there have been 150 calls to Bosque River Center, 50 of which involved troublesome teens.
While Halsell admitted an enforceable ordinance would not end the loitering problem, it would give officers the leverage they need to deal with it.
“This is just a step,” Halsell said. “Currently, we can’t make the kids leave.”
Halsell said the ordinance would provide signage alerting loiterers to the offense and officers or shop owners could offer verbal notification.