Student’s killing ignites concerns


Angry and upset over the killing of College of Charleston student William Alex Apps, parents of other students are calling on city leaders, school officials and police to clamp down on a perceived jump in crime on the peninsula that they believe is putting their children at risk.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and Police Chief Greg Mullen said they take every crime seriously, are sympathetic to parents’ concerns and welcome any ideas that are offered.

But they stressed that violent crime on the peninsula has dropped dramatically in recent years as the city has amassed the largest police force in the state.

“We are not going to rest on our laurels and we certainly understand any parent concerns,” Riley said, “but we want to try to assure them that this is a safe city and we have a great police department.”

In the wake of Apps’ slaying, city officials received 22 emails from College of Charleston parents last week expressing concern over crime and the safety of their children. Officials responded to each writer to allay their concerns, Mullen said, but much of the alarm seemed to be based on misunderstandings and misleading information.

“The number of violent crimes has clearly not escalated — it’s gone down," Mullen said, adding that information to the contrary “is just not factual.”

Worry among parents spread after authorities revealed that Apps, 25, was shot to death Oct. 3 after meeting two men at a Hardee’s restaurant on Spring Street to sell them his pickup truck in a deal arranged on Craigslist.

During a test drive, one of the men allegedly shot Apps in the head as they crossed the Ravenel Bridge. Charleston County sheriff’s detectives found his body Monday night in a stand of woods in Mount Pleasant and charged two men with murder.

The attention the killing has received is evidenced by the nearly 31,000 people who “liked” the “Justice for Alex Apps” page on Facebook by Friday evening.

Parents of Apps’ fellow students quickly took to an online bulletin board to vent their concerns and frustration with crime, sharing stories about their children and others.

One student’s mother posted a message that her son had been punched in the face for no reason while walking along King Street at night, sending him to the hospital for stitches. Another told of an assault on her son that left him with a concussion while attending a concert downtown. A third told the mayor she has discouraged her daughter from taking required evening classes due to fears of her walking the city’s streets at night.

Sharon Richie-Tiralosi, a Florida woman whose daughter is a freshman at the college, said the stories she has heard are shocking and she’s begun to reconsider having her son attend school here.

“My daughter has not been a victim but based on many reports on the Internet regarding crime statistics in Charleston, and parents who live in the area, I am disheartened to say the least,” she said.

Pamela Cherry of Johns Island said someone broke into her son’s Smith Street apartment this year while he was asleep inside. She and others suspect even more crimes go unreported.

“I think for a city its size, Charleston has a very high crime rate,” she said. “I also believe a lot of things get swept under the rug because it’s a tourist city and they don’t want it publicized.”

Not so, Mullen said. Police are vigilant about reporting crime, he said, and statistics show Charleston had a 26 percent drop in violent crime in 2012, with noticeably fewer rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults than in 2011. The total number of property crimes such as burglaries and car thefts in the city also dropped, by 10 percent, during the same time period.

Of the 296 violent crimes recorded in the city last year, just 22 occurred in the downtown area where the college and its students are mainly located, Mullen said. So far this year, crime is down 25 percent in the city, with five homicides compared to a dozen in 2012, city officials said. The decline was even more dramatic over time, Mullen said, with violent crime plummeting nearly 70 percent between 2006 to 2012.

The city has 454 officers, making the Charleston Police Department the largest local law enforcement agency in the state. Last week, authorities announced that Charleston police will receive three grants, totaling more than $1.27 million, that will allow the department to hire 10 officers and enhance their violence-reduction initiatives.

Mullen and Riley both responded to parents who wrote them, outlining the city’s crime statistics and trends, as well as detailing efforts underway to make further gains on crime. Mullen said some of the alarm seemed to stem from an online crime study that lumped Charleston’s crime numbers with surrounding communities, artificially inflating the city’s statistics and providing a misleading picture.

“While we certainly recognize the impact of the tragic criminal events that have occurred and been publicized recently and how they can cause specific concerns, it is critical that the information being used to couch this discussion be accurate and reflect the reality of crime in Charleston,” Mullen wrote.

Mullen told parents the city added a dozen new officers this year to the downtown area where the college is located, in addition to installing video surveillance cameras to monitor for problems and partnering with college officials and campus police to find ways to improve student safety. Those include joint patrols and a shuttle that has given rides to thousands of students, he said.

“There is not a safer, large city center in the State of South Carolina than Charleston and I do not believe there is a safer one in America,” Riley wrote.

Some parents appeared relieved by the mayor’s words and lauded Riley and Mullen in emailed responses to the city. “Thank you so much for all you do to make the City of Charleston a great place to live, work and study,” one student’s father wrote to the mayor, adding that he wishes the city would share its “wisdom and experience” on crime with officials in his Maryland town.

Others weren’t impressed, with one mother describing the mayor’s response “a worthless form letter” that she felt dismissed parents’ concerns.

Harold Mackey, an Isle of Palms resident whose 20-year-old son attends the college, was among those who urged parents to write the mayor. He said he found Riley’s response “insulting.” Statistics can be misleading, he said, and one trip to the boozy downtown bar scene on a weekend night reveals “a scary environment” with “a lot of wild stuff going on” and a host of potential threats to young people.

“We need to have a discussion about this, but his response has been, ‘We are doing a heck of a great job,’” Mackey said. “It’s a potential catastrophe sitting down there.”

He and other parents agree with Mullen’s view that students need to be more aware of their surroundings and take greater responsibility for their behavior and the positions they put themselves in. But Mackey said pushing that message is not enough.

Mullen said the city is doing more, including beefing up patrols in the entertainment districts with the additional officers obtained through the recent grant money. And the programs already underway have made a difference, he said. “It’s working.”

College of Charleston officials said they welcome the dialogue with parents but also have faith in the city’s commitment to curb crime. The campus police have a long history of working with Charleston officers to accomplish that mission, college spokesman Mike Robertson said.

“It’s always been our experience that the mayor and the Charleston Police Department are deeply committed to keeping students safe,” he said.