By Noelle Phillips
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gang violence in the Midlands increased in 2013 as gangs retaliated against each other and as the public grew complacent about their existence, some of the Midlands' top law enforcement officers say.
"This summer was horrendous," said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. "This summer, we saw the gangs go crazy like we did in the early 2000s.
"They would have a home invasion, a shooting in the city, on Atlas Road. The next night, we would have three drive by shootings."
Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago and Lott said law enforcement has continued its work to arrest gang members for violence, drug dealing and gun trafficking. But several years of relative peace from gang violence has led the community to focus its attention on other problems.
"I call it the perpetual slinky effect," Santiago said. "You get it going the way you want, and then we kind of lose the momentum from the community — and that's when we see the uprising in the community."
In the wake of multiple high-profile shootings in which suspects were named as gang members, The State newspaper recently invited four area law enforcement officials and a USC professor who is an expert in gang violence to a roundtable discussion about the problem.
Along with Lott and Santiago, the panel included David Thomas, the FBI special agent in charge of the Columbia office; Maj. Roger Owens, who leads the State Law Enforcement Division's intelligence center; and Jeff Rojek, an associate professor in USC's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Public concern over gangs in the Midlands peaked about 15 years ago, when Lott warned the community of a growing problem. Enforcement stepped up and residents began educating themselves on prevention.
However, Lott and other officials at the forum contend that public concern has waned over the years as gang violence was better controlled and slipped from the headlines.
Community involvement, they said, is essential in keeping young children from seeing gangs as a lifestyle choice or in keeping gangs from gaining toeholds in neighborhoods, from gangs stealing guns and money from neighbors' homes or committing crimes with impunity when people are afraid to turn them in.
Then fears over gangs reached a fevered pitch in October, when an 18-year-old University of South Carolina freshman from Greenville was paralyzed after she was struck by a stray bullet while waiting for a taxi ride home in Five Points.
Martha Childress' shooting became a rallying point for the community as Five Points merchants and others criticized the city for failing to address a growing gang presence in the area popular with students from Columbia's downtown college campuses.
As a response, Lott sent his deputies into Five Points, where they do not normally patrol, and then held a press conference to explain his actions. He said one gang, later identified as the Bloods, had claimed Five Points as its territory and that it had made one club its hangout.
Since then, reports of gang activity in Five Points have subsided.
But now is not the time to sit back and think the problem has once again been solved, Lott said.
"Our community waits until someone gets shot and paralyzed in Five Points or two kids get shot and killed on Two Notch Road before we get up in arms," he said.
Residents Are The Key
Communities everywhere fall into the trap of complacency, Rojek said.
He cited Boston's Operation Ceasefire, a project aimed at taking guns away from youth. The program was shown to reduce the city's youth homicide rate and was used as a model across the United States.
But after seeing success, Boston eased its enforcement and youth homicides began creeping back up.
"It's a problem you don't get rid of," Rojek said. "It's a problem you manage."
Over the summer, state and Midlands police found themselves working overtime to control gang violence.
Lott and Santiago said the violence escalated as rival gangs retaliated against each other.
One group would rob another and then the other side would retaliate with another robbery or a drive-by shooting.
"They don't just ride through a neighborhood and shoot up a house when they don't know who's there," Lott said. "They're shooting at another gang member's house. It might be a parent's house or a girlfriend's house. There's some connection to a gang on almost all drive-by shootings and almost all home invasions."
Lott offered as an example an outbreak in late July and early August as gangs fought in the Lower Richland community. That episode spread into the city and also included sheriff's deputies intercepting two men as they arrived with pistols in their car at a funeral for another gang member.
Gang violence knows no boundaries, Lott said.
"If something happens at Gonzales Gardens, it's going to affect us way out on Two Notch Road," Lott said. "It's going to affect us even down Bluff Road."
Authorities told The State newspaper their enforcement against violent gangs never stops, whether there's a rise in violence or not.
At the FBI's Columbia office, investigating gangs is one of the agency's top two priorities, Thomas said. Last year, FBI agents in Columbia made 245 gang-related arrests, he said. The agency in recent years has led investigations into Bloods and Folk Nation members, using wiretaps to bring drug trafficking and other charges.
SLED manages a statewide database of known gang members. As of Jan. 13, there were 3,244 documented gang members who belong to 487 gangs, Owens said. That information is compiled when agencies share what they have, then is shared with other departments across the state.
Last year, SLED agents noticed an increase in drug trafficking between South Carolina and the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area. So the agency began sharing gang information with those areas, allowing state and local police access. Now, those agencies can recognize potential gang connections if they stop someone from Baltimore or Washington, Owens said.
The Columbia Police Department has five full-time gang investigators in a unit the department has been trying to grow in recent years, Santiago said.
But the officers said they need the community's help in combating gangs.
When gangs first caught the community's attention in the early 2000s, people asked the sheriff's department what needed to be done. Politicians asked for them to speak before councils. Neighborhood and parent associations wanted presentations.
In recent years, that public interest has faded.
Thomas said he recently spoke about gangs at a Rotary meeting and was challenged by a skeptical audience member who did not believe gangs were a problem. Thomas told the man it was because he lived in a good neighborhood and worked in a safe place.
"The average person in the community doesn't see what goes on in Gonzales Gardens," Thomas said. "They're not there. It's a good thing it's not going on in their community, but that's why education and awareness is important. It won't stop without their involvement."
Keeping community momentum going is a challenge in every city, Rojek said. Most resources are volunteer-driven so time and money come and go, he said.
But Lott was more critical of the community's participation.
"What the shame is, is our community waits until somebody gets shot and paralyzed in Five Points or two kids get shot and killed on Two Notch Road before they get up in arms.
"Why do we have to wait until somebody gets killed when they know that the problem is there? That's the way this community has always been.
"They sit back until it's the point of no return. Then they're reacting. It's not proactive."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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