Public safety studies and changes in shifts for part-time "ambassadors" could follow in the wake of an assault on Charlottesville's iconic Downtown Mall and a strong-arm robbery nearby, the city's top elected official said Thursday.
"Maybe we need to look at the timing of service" for ambassadors, said Mayor Satyendra Huja. "Maybe there ought to be more police out there around closing time. I think that would be helpful. Maybe some studies [are in order]."
Huja and others described the robbery and beating, which took place over an 11-day stretch, as coincidental.
"In general I think the mall is a safe place," Huja said. "This could happen anywhere."
Just before midnight on New Year's Eve, two men knocked a woman down and stole her purse near the transit station on Water Street, a block off the mall, said Charlottesville police Lt. Ronnie Roberts.
That happened less than two weeks after two men assaulted a man and woman Dec. 20 on the mall. The man was knocked unconscious, lost a tooth and suffered cracked ribs and a fractured ankle. The woman suffered bruised ribs, a cut on her neck and ear injuries.
"Any assault on our employees, employers, customers or just those who come down to enjoy the mall is one too many," said Bob Stroh, co-chairman of the Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville. "This is the worst kind of coincidence because they happened so close together, but there's no indication that this is a trend. We don't think the mall is a dangerous place."
Public safety on the mall, a revenue generator and economic driver for the city, has been a hot topic in recent years.
In 2012, the City Council denied police Chief Timothy J. Longo's request for $1 million to add police to patrol the mall. Instead, the city last year implemented a $72,000-a-year program to cover the cost of four part-time "ambassadors" acting as "eyes and ears" for police and helping visitors navigate the area.
The ambassadors would have been off work hours before the Dec. 20 attack, which took place after 1 a.m.
Stroh said the business association's board would talk with police at the group's regular meeting Jan. 15.
"We're going to look at what happened, what's happening and what can be done to improve the situation," he said. "We take it seriously."
Huja said call volume decreased 30 percent to 40 percent on the mall last year compared to 2012, numbers echoed by Roberts, although neither had exact figures available.
"On the Downtown Mall, safety has improved tremendously," said former city Mayor Dave Norris, whose term as councilor ended on New Year's Eve. "You don't want to make major policing decisions after one or even just a couple incidents."
There were 12 aggravated assaults on the mall in 2012, four times the total in 2009, according to police statistics. There were 52 simple assaults in 2012, a 50-percent increase over 2009 but a decrease of more than a fourth from 2011.
Police bulletin reports, which do not necessarily include all police calls for service, indicate that from Dec. 14 to Tuesday there were three assaults on the mall, on Dec. 14, Dec. 16 and Dec. 20.
The Dec. 16 assault occurred around midnight. The Dec. 14 assault was reported 15 days later and occurred sometime during the day. The Dec. 20 assault gained national notoriety after one of the victims, a woman, posted on Facebook what she described as photographs of the attackers.
That incident prompted Longo to order an internal audit to explain why the case went 10 days without being transferred from duty officers to investigators. Police have described the delay as a "breakdown."
Still, considering the mall's active nightlife, incidents there are relatively rare, Roberts said.
"The reality is that there are people out and about and consuming alcohol and from time to time there are going to be arguments and fights and disagreements," Roberts said.
Mall patrons should be aware of their surroundings, watch for trouble and report anything suspicious, Roberts said.