Walterboro's turnaround: City sees a drop in crime as areas are policed and spruced up
WALTERBORO -- Charles Mitchell couldn't understand why a shipping company opted not to deliver a package to his home a few months back. So he called the company and learned some new drivers were too scared to venture into his neighborhood.
Mitchell knows all too well that three people were shot to death around the corner from his McDaniel Street home in November 2009. But, he said, that's not the norm. The neighborhood is a place where families live, people look out for one another and laughing children play daily in the park, he said.
"I've never been scared around here," said Mitchell, 70. "Violence? We don't have no problem with that now."
Mitchell's appraisal may be overly sunny. But this rural community has certainly seen a decline in bloodshed in the year since heavily armed agents swooped in to battle dangerous and entrenched gangs in the area. Violent crime in the city dropped 30 percent in 2010, and Walterboro is on pace to post similar numbers this year, according to local officials.
City officials credit aggressive enforcement, greater community involvement and several key arrests. The city also increased its community policing efforts and joined a multi- agency initiative aimed at boosting public safety, improving neighborhoods and fostering economic development.
"Fighting crime is a process, not a goal with a definable conclusion," Mayor Bill Young said. "I don't know that we will ever be able to say we've eliminated all crime. But it's a process we're committed to, and we are going to do whatever it takes to see these numbers continue to improve."
Residents say they've already noticed the difference.
"It has settled down quite a bit," said Ted Parker, a longtime resident and funeral home owner. "There is a feeling that crime has subsided a lot in the past year."
Walterboro, which bills itself as "the front porch of the Lowcountry," has been working to boost its image and fortunes following a string of shootings and gang violence that drew negative attention to the city in recent years.
Violent crime peaked in the city in 2007, but things didn't really come to a head until November 2009, when two adults and a 20-month-old girl were killed in a drive-by shooting near the corner of Gerideau and McDaniel streets. Police intensified their efforts, with aid from the State Law Enforcement Division and others. A state grand jury investigation followed, culminating in a June 2010 raid that targeted 20 members of rival gangs.
Much of the violence has since subsided, as evidenced by a 36 percent drop in aggravated assaults last year, officials said. The city is on pace for an even steeper decline this year. But officials also recognize that work remains to be done. That point was illustrated this past week when a man was shot in the leg during a confrontation in the Druid Hills neighborhood. Property crimes also have experienced a slight hike.
Police Chief Otis Rhodes said a bright spot in last week's shooting was that information from the community quickly led investigators to three suspects who were taken into custody.
Rhodes and his officers have made a concerted push to strengthen police ties with the community. Officers make a daily effort to get out and speak with residents and business owners to hear their concerns. "It builds trust and seems to be making a big difference," he said. "If something happens, the citizens feel they have someone they can talk to and get some action."
Also under way is a collaborative program involving the city, SLED , the state Department of Juvenile Justice and the state Department of Commerce. The effort, mainly funded by $1 million in federal grants, is helping with neighborhood revitalization and programs that provide mentoring, training and internship opportunities to at-risk kids, officials said.
The city also has improved street lighting, boarded up vacant buildings and worked with nonprofit groups to rehab blighted properties. Along Lemacks Street, once a hot spot for police, families have moved into renovated properties and troublemakers no longer linger between a pool hall and a liquor store, both of which have closed.
The city is planning to spruce up its parks and plant new trees downtown. New businesses are moving into the commercial district, as well, a sign folks are willing to invest in Walterboro, Young said.
Young hopes this all sends a message that Walterboro is a safe and attractive place to live, work and play. Some residents said they never had any doubt that was the case.
"I've never been robbed. I've never been broken into," said Kelvin Levine, 37. "I hear about crime, but I've never witnessed anything around here. It all seems like just rumors to me."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.