Residents in some parts of Columbia would like to go a week — heck, even a few days — without the sound of gunfire ringing out in their neighborhoods.
This is especially true in North Columbia. Columbia police officials say the department received 1,400 calls of shots fired last year, with nearly 120 shooting victims. According to Chief Skip Holbrook, a “high and disproportionate number” of those shots fired calls came from North Columbia’s 29203 zip code.
In response, the Columbia Police Department is partnering with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and various other law enforcement agencies to identify people most likely to be involved with gun violence in that zip code and take measures to prevent further violence.
The deterrent strategy, known as Operation Ceasefire, was rolled out Oct. 29 during a community meeting at the Eau Claire Print Building. According to Holbrook, 43 people from North Columbia with violent criminal convictions who are currently on probation or parole attended the meeting, and were put on notice that any further gun-related violations will land them in federal or state court, with stiff prison sentences likely resulting.
“This is to target a group of individuals that we believe are the most likely to either commit a violent gun crime or be the victim of a gun crime,” Holbrook says. “We specifically targeted offenders who live in the 29203 zip code. We arrived at this list by working with [the S.C. Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole], to come up with a list of convicted felons that are on probation or parole in that zip code. From that list, we looked for those who had multiple arrests for violent crimes. Through PPP, we required them to attend the community meeting.”
Holbrook says the 43 violent offenders were informed that, if they get caught with a firearm or ammunition, they would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“There will be no plea bargains and no reduction in charges,” the chief says. “They will be put in the front of the line and dealt with in the most severe way possible, in accordance with the law. That was the message they got from law enforcement.”
However, the North Columbia offenders aren’t simply threatened with swift and lengthy jail time as a part of Operation Ceasefire. A “laundry list” of service providers — focusing on parenting skills, job training, housing, help with substance abuse and beyond — are taking part in the program to assist them with various resources they might need to avoid returning to crime, Holbrook says.
Operation Ceasefire was initially instituted in Boston in 1996 in an effort to reduce homicides, specifically those that were gang-related. It was instituted there much in the same way it was recently introduced here, with community meetings targeting specific individuals in specific geographic areas, with consequences of further violence being long prison sentences, but also offering numerous services to help address systemic issues that lead to crime.
According to the National Gang Center, a meta-analysis of numerous evaluations of Operation Ceasefire has shown “a large reduction in the annual number of youth homicides was reported in Boston and significant decreases were noted in other Ceasefire cities.”
Holbrook says he conducted a similar targeted deterrent operation on an open-air drug market when he was a police chief in West Virginia. The chief says he saw sustained and, in the case of certain types of crime, dramatic results with that operation in West Virginia.
He says he hopes those results can be replicated in 29203.
“We’ve had an uptick in homicides [throughout Columbia] and we’ve just got an unacceptable amount of gun crime,” Holbrook says. “We can tout success of [overall] violent crime going down, but, to me, there is an unacceptable amount of gunfire that still continues. That’s where we have to put our focus.”