“We have too many damn guns on the street.”
With that one sentence on Sept. 24, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin encapsulated a problem that has plagued Columbia. However, city officials are also touting new federal funding that will help the Columbia Police Department fight back against gun violence.
The Columbia Police Department is receiving nearly $746,000 in grant funding from the federal government, money which will be used for the formation of a Crime Gun Intelligence Unit within CPD and to bolster the department’s relationships with various state and federal agencies.
The city’s new gun unit would include crime analysts, ballistic experts, a program manager and a coordinator for the police department’s Project Ceasefire program, among others.
Ceasefire is an initiative CPD has in North Columbia in which it reaches out to violent offenders who are on probation and parole and puts them on notice that any further gun-related offenses would result in stiff prison sentences. To balance that, police also put those offenders directly in contact with service providers — focusing on parenting skills, job training, housing, help with substance abuse and beyond — that could assist them with various resources they might need to avoid returning to crime.
Police Chief Skip Holbrook says the nearly $746,000 in federal grant funds, most of which will be doled out over the course of three years, will be put to a combination of uses, including helping with salaries for those in the Crime Gun Intelligence Unit, equipment and technical training.
Gun crime has been particularly troublesome in Columbia recently. For instance, in August police fretted over a nine-day period in which there were 20 gun-related incidents within the city. Holbrook also says homicides in which guns were used have been steadily climbing in the Capital City.
“Gun-related violence is high in Columbia,” Holbrook says. “It’s high compared to other cities of equal size. Recently we have received a precipitous increase in gun-related murders. In 2017, for example, 64 percent of our murders were committed by someone with a gun. In 2018, that rose to 75 percent. So far this year, we are at about 80 percent.”
There are other numbers that point to the proliferation of guns and shooting incidents in Columbia. According to city statistics, 705 guns have been submitted to the city’s evidence room so far in 2019, meaning an average of 2.6 guns per day were being submitted into evidence by police, as of Sept. 24.
And then there’s ShotSpotter, the technology the city police have been using in North Columbia since April. ShotSpotter detects gun shots just as they happen, alerting police and allowing officers to get to the area quickly. Since April, police have gotten 657 ShotSpotter alerts, accounting for more than 2,200 rounds fired in the various incidents. Nearly 800 shell casings have been recovered, and nine people have been hit with gunfire (with three deaths) in the various ShotSpotter cases.
Long story short: There’s a hell of a lot of gunfire in Columbia.
The CPD Crime Gun Intelligence Unit will focus specifically on the collection, management and analysis of gun crime evidence in the hopes of identifying more shooters, disrupting criminal activity and preventing potential future violence.
Holbrook was bullish about the impact he thinks the gun-related grant funds could have on the Capital City.
“I think it is going to change the narrative forever, that narrative of violent crime that has followed this city for way too long,” Holbrook says.
Benjamin has been aggressive when it comes to legislating in gun issues. The mayor was the driver of the city’s move to ban gun bump stocks, pushed to get the city to label “ghost guns” a public nuisance and recently helped pass ordinances establishing gun-free school zones and setting up a process for family members and law enforcement to ask a court to remove guns from a person who is an “extreme risk,” among other moves.
He is hopeful the recently announced grant funding will help the city take steps in addressing gun violence in a meaningful way.
“America has a gun problem. All across this country there are as many guns in the streets as there are human beings on the street,” Benjamin says. Indeed, The Washington Post reported in 2018 that there are about 393 million civilian firearms in circulation in the U.S., while the U.S. population is roughly 326 million. Citizens in the U.S. own 46 percent of the civilian firearms on the planet.
“Communities like ours feel the pinch of it every single day,” the mayor continues. “We’ll continue to make the investment, yes, in preventing gun violence. Solving [crimes] and taking the worst actors off the streets is exactly where our focus ought to be.”