Skip Holbrook July 2019

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, center, talks with residents in the Greenview neighborhood on July 25 following the announcement of the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative for North Columbia.

Pat Gold hears the gunshots in North Columbia. She wishes they didn't ring out quite so often.

"I am very much concerned," says Gold, a longtime resident of the Lincolnshire neighborhood, northwest of I-20. "One of the problems is that I hear gunshots, but I don't know where they are coming from. We have an area behind Lincolnshire, a wooded area, and we can hear it coming from over there."

Now, several agencies are coming together on an effort that seeks to make sure Gold and others don't hear as much gunfire in that part of Columbia.

On July 25, U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative in North Columbia, the mostly African American section of the Capital City largely outlined by the 29203 zip code. The multi-faceted project seeks to reduce violent crime and gun crimes in the area.

According to the FBI 2017's crime report, the six counties that make up the Midlands area ranked 25th in the nation when it comes to violent crime, with 558 violent crimes per 100,000 people. Lydon notes violent crime in Columbia is twice the national average, with a disproportionate amount of that violence stemming from North Columbia.

"The people of North Columbia have a right to live in peace, free from chaos and danger," Lydon told a gathering of Greenview neighborhood residents and leaders on July 25. "Sheriff Lott was recently told that, in one area, the members of the community had come up with their own strategy for fighting violent crime. That strategy was to hide in the bathtub until they could no longer hear the gunshots. That is unacceptable."

According to Lydon, one of the pillars of the Project Safe Neighborhoods is strategic policing, with CPD and the sheriff's department identifying specific neighborhoods with a violent crime problem, then apprehending key offenders who are driving that violence and seeking significant state or federal prison time for them.

"We know you have watched these offenders be arrested, only to return quickly to wreak further havoc in the community," Lydon said. "We're going to do something about that. Federal gun statutes are our tool. The statutes carry very serious time for offenders who, because of prior convictions, aren't supposed to be carrying guns."

Lydon says the agencies will rely on analytics to develop strategies for crime reduction in North Columbia.

"I think what makes this different is that we are less reactive at this point, and more proactive," she said. "We are doing what Chief Holbrook calls evidence-based policing. We are studying the analytics and figuring out it's a very small group [committing violent crimes] and this information tells us more about this group and their likelihood to reoffend, and where it's going to happen."

The City of Columbia has, for the last several years, been operating a program in North Columbia — Project Ceasefire — in which it has reached out to violent offenders who are on probation and parole and put them on notice that any further gun-related offenses would result in stiff prison sentences. 

However, to balance that, police 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. 

On July 25, Holbrook said that, in the department's most recent outreach with Ceasefire, out of 26 previous violent offenders who participated, 22 have not reoffended, a figure the chief called "remarkable."

"That's 22 people that law enforcement hasn't had to deal with [again]," Holbrook said. "That's 22 less people we have to put in jail."

The chief says Operation Ceasefire will continue in North Columbia as part of Project Safe Neighborhoods. He also notes the city will continue to upgrade surveillance cameras in the city, and it will keep using ShotSpotter, the technology that's utilized by 100 law enforcement agencies around the country to detect gunshots moments after they happen. Police started using the technology in April in North Columbia.

Project Safe Neighborhoods goes further than just strategically targeting offenders. It also will include community meetings; education and prevention programs; partnerships with University of South Carolina researchers for help with analytics in evidence-based policing; public service announcements on TV, radio and on COMET buses; and notices on neighborhood doorknobs offering residents information on how to report incidents and suspicious activity.

"If you see something and say something, we will do something," Lydon told neighbors on July 25. "We are asking you to partner with us. If you hear gunshots, if there are break-ins, if you see suspicious activity, please tell us."

Project Safe Neighborhoods has been kicking around, in various ways, for nearly 20 years. Begun during President George W. Bush's administration, it was updated by the Justice Department in 2017 after a bump in violent crime nationally in 2015 and 2016. 

A 2017 study from the Bureau of Justice Assistance looked at the impact of Project Safe Neighborhoods in Chicago, which first started the program in 2002. The study found that violent crime, including homicides, dropped during the program's initial years, but the effects dissipated over time as the program expanded.

Howard Johnson lives in North Columbia and was in attendance for the July 25 announcement of the safe neighborhoods initiative there. He says he's hopeful the program will make a meaningful difference for the community, particularly if residents buy in.

"Any time you can get the community involved and aware of situations, you can curtail some of the issues," Johnson told Free Times.

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