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SoundOff: At the intersection of progress and peril

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Growing up in North Columbia — Farrow Road corridor to be exact — the issue of gun violence was a foreign one to our close-knit familial community. Life wasn’t perfect, but it had a serenity about it that always made you feel like everything was going to be okay. That serenity was harshly ripped away on January 12, 1990, when our community was jolted by the news of two well-known high school students being shot and killed; a day I’ll never forget.

It happened the winter before my freshman year at Eau Claire High. As a pubescent, their murders shook me to the core — young boys here one day and gone the next. Up to that point, like many teenagers, I thought I was invincible. Death was not something that crossed our minds, particularly not death that was violent in nature. It was as if a measure of our innocence was also taken that day, and we were exposed to the trauma, vulnerability, and sting known intimately by community violence.

30 years have passed since that tragedy, and my beloved community in North Columbia looks starkly different from what I remember. It seems the anomaly of the 1990 murders has taken on an eerily common rhythm in what’s happening today. It’s a dance we never signed up for, led by a song on repeat we desperately need to end. 

In 2019, 25 people were murdered in Columbia, of which 20 died by gun violence. Fourteen of them were black men. Further, a total of 83 people were shot last year. Eighty-nine percent of victims were African American. Violence is a multifaceted, complex issue. It has roots of poverty, anxiety and hopelessness. Whether it’s domestic violence or community violence, it all weaves together and replays when certain scenarios are triggered.

Recognizing that my community wasn’t going to change without folks dedicated to being part of that change, I applied for an officer role with the Columbia Police Department when I turned 21. I was committed to changing the narrative for black men and boys who, like me, were only one bad choice away from becoming a statistic.

As an officer, my course was non-traditional and unconventional, but it proved to be richly rewarding in many ways. CPD purchased a house in the Waverly community, and I was one of two officers selected to live and work there. It’s unique tactics like these that make all the difference in what’s appropriately coined “community policing.” It is what’s needed in greater measure in every community across the country. 

Another essential facet of addressing community violence is improving re-entry programming for returning citizens. Simple yet impactful measures like increased partnership among municipal government, nonprofit and corporate entities would aid in healing our communities.

Whether in the schools themselves or in wrap-around programs, we need expanded services for kids who are expelled or suspended, recognizing these students become much more susceptible to getting into trouble the minute they take a leave of absence from the classroom.

As that kid who grew up in neighborhoods like Latimer Manor, Greenview and College Place, I must attribute my success to a lot of grace, a stern but loving mother and mentors who made sure my feet were on the right path, headed in the right direction. We need to make sure all young people have a roadmap to opportunity and some help along the way. Without that type of guidance, who knows where I’d be today. 

Regardless of whether you’re from my community or one like mine, we all have a role to play in our city. Intentional investments of resources into the people and infrastructure of our communities, as well as the systems that affect them, will not only change what you see now — it’ll change what’s possible for generations to come.  

Melron Kelly is deputy chief of the Columbia Police Department.

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