BY HANNAH LESTER AND KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
The recent rash of crime activity including gun violence and bomb threats against local schools has left many citizens feeling on edge.
Following a string of shootings in Opelika over the past few months, citizens may be concerned, but Opelika Police Chief Shane Healey said the best thing is to be is aware.
There have been several noted shootings since February, all connected, said Healy and Jonathan Clifton, captain of the detective division.
“We’ve had shootings that started back in February and it’s between two juvenile groups, and it’s been escalating over the last few months; we’ve made 14 arrests in those cases and we have done our best to stop the crime,” Clifton said. “We’ve met with family members, parents, community leaders, pastors in the community to try and curb some of this violence.”
However, the connections are not the marks of gangs, Healey said. A group has to have several distinguishable things to be considered a gang, which are not present in this situation.
A better term in Opelika’s case would be a feud.
“We believe it started as a fist fight between two kids; one lost and it’s just escalated from that,” Healey said.
The recent murder of a 17-year-old earlier in September is believed to be connected to the case, the captain said.
“We’ve made arrests on that,” Clifton said. “A 20-year-old, Mr. Stinson, from Auburn, and a juvenile suspect. They have been charged with capital murder.”
However, not every shooting in Opelika is connected. The murder of 53-year-old Jeffery Dowdell on Sept. 17 on Auburn Street is unconnected.
“We’re actively working that case, and we do wish the public to reach out to us if they have any information because we really need some help on that case,” Clifton said.
Crime rises and falls, he added.
“It’s always constantly flowing,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have a higher violent crime rate, and our property crimes will go down. Sometimes our property crimes will go up and will stay up for quite a while, and then our violent crime will go down.”
Clifton said in the context, crime has been worse in the past, too. As Opelika grows, things change, including crime.
“But I’m sure my goal, and the chief’s goal, is the lowest crime rate we can get,” he said.
In the meantime, until this issue is fully resolved, there are extra patrols and officers keeping people safe. Many newly hired officers will be in the schools as school resource officers.
Healey encouraged citizens not to worry too much because these shootings are targeted and related to a specific group.
“They’re not just willy-nilly running around just shooting up houses, they’re actually, specifically, looking for people or places,” Healey said.
However, residents do need to be aware of their surroundings and anything suspicious that may be going on, both Clifton and Healey said.
“We do need the public’s help,” Clifton said. “If they see something, by all means, call. It doesn’t matter if to them it isn’t that suspicious.”
Clifton said that he often hears people say they “don’t want to bother the police.”
But in this situation and others, the chief and captain encouraged people to call in any suspicious activity.
“People know their neighborhoods, they know what’s normal around where they live, the ways that they travel to places, the stores they frequent,” Healey said. “They know what’s normal for those locations. If they see something that is abnormal, that is out of place … they need to let us know.”
The two encouraged residents to download the police department’s app, which not only is updated with community news but offers opportunities to get in touch with the department, both anonymously or otherwise.
“One of the other ways to stay safe really, is for somebody to stay informed about what’s going on in their community,” Healey said.
Education in the community is one aspect of the Together Opelika initiative — a partnership between the city and the Opelika Police Department.
“A very large piece of Together Opelika focuses on that communication,” Healey said. “A lot of it is just having a conversation with somebody when they ask about [things in their community].”
And as communication continues to take place, citizens become more trusting of their officers, Clifton said.
“I think really the biggest two things is, any time, whether it’s something to do with this rash of shootings, this feud that’s going on, whether it’s something that happens in the future, don’t hesitate to call us,” Healey said. “Reach out some way.”
On Sept. 21, the Opelika Police Department announced the arrest of a 12-year-old juvenile in the case of two threats made to Opelika Middle School.
According to a statement OPD released about the arrest, the juvenile was charged with two counts of terroristic threats with additional charges pending. The case will be presented to juvenile court.
The announcement came less than two hours after Healey and Opelika City Schools Superintendent Dr. Farrell Seymore answered questions about the incident at a press conference held at the board of education’s central office.
Healey said OPD was made aware of the first threat the evening of Sept. 20, and OMS staff notified police of a second threat at about 7:40 a.m. the next day.
The threats were tied to the same username on social media.
“Today’s threat involved the use of a bomb, so unfortunately, we’ve practiced for this and have protocols in place, so we immediately — with our SROs and the school staff — enacted those protocols to get the kids out of the school to a secure place where they would be safe,” Healey said at the conference.
Opelika police, with assistance from the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, went through the school searching for suspicious devices and explosives with the help of K-9s trained to detect bombs.
“We did clear the school — didn’t find anything — and at that point, we turned the school back over to Dr. Seymore and the middle school staff, and they had the kids to come back in and start to try to resume a normal day,” Healey said.
Seymore said parents were notified of the situation through Opelika City Schools’ public relations department. A number of students checked out after the incident, but those students will be excused for their absence.
“Our goal, number 1, is to provide a safe, secure environment … and have high-quality instruction every day,” Seymore said at the conference. “This is clearly disruptive to that, but safety is something we’re not going to compromise, so that’s why we enacted the plan this morning.”
Healey said the threats did not appear to have “anything to do” with recent shootings or a threat made to the upcoming Lee County Fair.
Both Seymore and Healey said threats of this nature are not taken lightly.
“These threats, even though they may just be kind of a general threat put out on social media, we take it extremely seriously, and it is a serious crime,” Healey said. “It falls under what we call ‘terroristic threats.’ It’s a felony, and whether you’re a young person or an adult, you can go to jail for a very long time based on making these kinds of threats.
“This is not something to be taken lightly. People need to understand that. Just because it’s easy to get on there and text something behind a screen, maybe nobody knows who you are, [but] we’re going to find out who you are. It’s not that hard for us to do. We’re going to get you, and we’re going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.”
As of press time, the case is still under investigation. Anyone with any information is encouraged to call the OPD Detective Division at 334-705-5220 or the Secret Witness Hotline at 334-745-8665, or submit a tip through the Opelika Police mobile app. Tips may be made anonymously.