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Columbia-area police scrambling to end rise in violent crime amid recent rash of shootings

Five Points shooting sneaker (copy)

A police investigator photographs an Air Jordan sneaker left in the middle of Greene Street after a shooting in Five Points on May 4, 2021 in Columbia. File/Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — State and local police have raised alarms about what they say is a rise in gun violence and murder across South Carolina throughout much of the year, but a spate of recent shootings and other firearms incidents in the Columbia area has fueled a greater sense of urgency.

During the past month, a man on a roof in a northeast Columbia subdivision exchanged gunfire with deputies, a man was shot to death in the yard of a Blythewood home on a weekday morning as students were preparing for class at nearby Westwood High School, and a 24-year-old man was shot at a Columbia apartment complex.

"I just appeal to our citizens, we've got to say this is enough; it is absolutely enough," an emotional Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said during a news conference Oct. 27 to announce arrests in the 2020 shooting death of 7-year-old Knowledge Sims. "We have a small percent of the population committing the majority of our violent crime and wreaking havoc in our neighborhoods, destroying families, destroying neighborhoods. That's what's happened here."

While overall crime is down in the city of Columbia through nine months of 2021 versus the same period a year ago, violent crime is up 11 percent and homicides up 20 percent, according to Columbia Police Department statistics.

In Richland County, there have been 29 shooting deaths as of the first week of November, up from 12 at the same time in 2020, a Richland County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman said.

Just outside the city during one week in October:

• Richland County deputies charged two high school students and one middle school student with bringing loaded guns to school.

• A 3-year-old girl was killed Oct. 29 north of Columbia after she accidentally shot herself.

• Michael Josey, 32, was charged with eight counts of attempted murder and possessing a stolen weapon in connection to shooting at officers from the roof of a Cascade Street home on Oct. 29.

Earlier in October, four men were charged in the fatal Blythewood shooting that resulted in Westwood High School being placed on lockdown. Tyler Hill, Eric Bolar, Antonio Leslie and Antonio Ivery are charged with murder in what the Sheriff's Department said was a robbery.

Authorities have repeated a familiar plea, imploring gun owners to keep cars locked and weapons secured.

"Every night you've got young people going through neighborhoods, just opening car doors and finding guns," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Oct. 29 after deputies arrested a man they said had shot at officers from a roof. "These guns end up on the street, and they end up in a shooting."

Despite overall crime trending down in Columbia, gun crime remains an urgent issue, Holbrook told city leaders in September. People injured in shootings had increased by 15 incidents to 66 from the same period in 2020, Holbrook said in his update. 

Police have charged increasingly more people with illegally possessing guns during the past five years, Holbrook told City Council members, and were on track to meet or exceed the 857 guns seized in 2020.

Holbrook also said the capital city needed to raise pay for officers to receive the highest salaries of any department in the state and to increase the number of cars officers could take home to help better recruit and retain officers. Holbrook said the agency has averaged about 71 vacancies since he became chief in 2014, with a high of 93 openings this year.

The gun violence and public safety issues have become central to the campaigns for city offices. 

Council members Daniel Rickenmann and Tameika Isaac Devine, who will meet in a runoff election for mayor Nov. 16, have both advocated increasing pay and for take-home vehicles for officers and expanding technology such as Shotspotter that alerts police to gunshots in certain areas before dispatchers receive emergency calls.

Reach Stephen Fastenau at 803-365-3235. Follow him on Twitter @StephenFastenau.

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