2 sides disagree on symbols being work of wannabes or real gangs
It's rare that "the writing on the wall" is, literally, writing on the wall.
Summerville's David Followell believes it's plain to see that nationally and even internationally active gangs are leaving their marks — in the form of graffiti — all over town. He said he can't understand why local law enforcement isn't more concerned.
But spokesmen for the Summerville Police Department and the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office insist that while they see the graffiti, they have found nothing to validate that West Coast, Mexican or other notorious street gang members are actually in or near Summerville.
The graffiti could be the work of unorganized, juvenile gang wannabes, said Dorchester County Sheriff's 1st Sgt. Michael Miller.
Summerville Police Sgt. Cassandra Williams said notorious gang insignia seen around town is the work of "taggers — little kids who want to express themselves."
Followell said he's well aware that much of what is seen is not authentic, but he said he's convinced the Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Surenos 13 (also known as SUR-13) and other gangs are here.
Followell said many people find it impossible to believe that gangs could take root in a lovely, peaceful town like Summerville, but "Summerville is perfect for them," he said.
"They are looking for places like this that don't want to admit they are here. They can recruit and take hold in places like this where they have relative safety. They can't recruit when police are harassing them," he added.
The State Law Enforcement Division reported that gang activities and related crimes — violence, drug and gun smuggling — are rapidly growing around South Carolina. Police in larger cities such as Columbia, Charleston and North Charleston put great emphasis on dealing with gangs, but the big cities aren't the only ones attracting gangs.
Orangeburg, Florence and Colleton counties are experiencing significant gang problems, SLED reports.
Miller said the sheriff's office has a special unit to deal with gang activity. The narcotics unit in particular keeps an eye out for organized gang activity within the drug trafficking trade, but no arrests, searches or other law-enforcement activities have produced any evidence gangs are active around Summerville.
Williams said Summerville police are trained to recognize the signs of gang activity. She said they haven't had problems with any of the gangs Followell mentioned.
Followell, 49, who is pursuing an anthropology degree at Trident Technical College in hope of a career as a cultural anthropologist, said law enforcement is making a mistake by not becoming more proactive against gangs. Followell recently shared his concerns at a Town Council meeting.
"We have a gang problem in Dorchester County, and Dorchester County has its head stuck in the sand," Followell maintained at the meeting.
"Summerville still has somewhat of a chance, but gangs are being given time to grow and take root. It's going to be an uphill battle," he said.
According to SLED, more than 700 gang-related crimes were committed in South Carolina in 2006, the last year for which figures were available. Today, more than 325 groups found in the state "fit the general definition of a gang: an organized group of three or more people who adopt a common name and engage in crime."
North Charleston is among 16 law-enforcement agencies in the state that receive grants to monitor and confront gang activity. North Charleston will use nearly $70,000 awarded last year to pay for one of two officers assigned to disrupt gang recruitment and scrutinize graffiti. Police Chief Jon Zumalt said the money will help the department keep gangs from taking root.
Charleston police are tracking gang graffiti, and the Charleston County Sheriff's Office flags gang members who enter the county jail and catalogs their tattoos for law-enforcement use.