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A woman runs on the West Ashley Greenway on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, where two women were punched last month in random attacks. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

This year marked the fifth time Monica Jefferson celebrated her son’s birthday without him.

It’s been five years since Malcolm Jefferson was fatally shot on his 18th birthday as he stood outside a West Ashley residence. On the anniversary of the killing last week, his mother and 50 of her friends and family released balloons at her Charleston home.

Twenty-three red and black balloons, Malcolm’s favorite colors, were followed by five white balloons — each one representing a year passed since his unsolved slaying.

In the years since his death, Monica Jefferson has emerged as a vocal advocate, working to raise awareness about gun violence and other violent crime in West Ashley and beyond. And over the past year, with Charleston Police Department data showing an 11 percent spike in violent crime in the area from 2016 to 2017, she has been busy.

Even with many residents like Jefferson on edge, police insist that the tide is turning. Charleston Lt. Anthony Cretella said the violent crime rate in West Ashley from January to mid-October went down 17 percent while nonviolent crime reported to police is down by 11 percent. Cretella oversees the patrol team responsible for the area.

“Being down 17 percent is big,” he said. "The first component here was engaging our officers in community policing throughout all of West Ashley (and) actually making contacts with citizens."

Still, a sense of uneasiness among residents here persists while law enforcement continues to stress vigilance and efforts to prevent crimes of opportunity.

At one point this year, Jefferson questioned the effectiveness of the work done by advocates like herself and feared that their voices were falling on deaf ears. 

The crimes were discouraging: multiple violent assaults on women on the West Ashley Greenway, a path popular among runners and dog walkers; a young man shot to death in his car; and a summertime shooting near an apartment complex basketball court that took the lives of two teenagers.

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Megan Smith and Maeve West bike the West Ashley Greenway on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

All of this was compounded by a rash of break-ins and thefts from cars this summer that left area residents unnerved. So in July, following the killings of the two teens, Charleston police hosted a town hall meeting where they could hear and respond to concerns from the community.

“The priority right now is targeting these young folks,” Jefferson said, speaking about the focus of her most recent engagement efforts.

Jefferson said she is especially focused on learning to help young people understand the importance of reporting crimes that they witness and cooperating with those who are trying to prevent them.

She has forged relationships with other mothers and parents who have lost children and family members to gun violence, as well as other advocates.

Among them is Maggie Kilgore, a former area middle school teacher who recently launched a nonprofit, Charleston Youth Club, that she said will provide resources and mentoring to middle school- and high school-age youths.

Kilgore echoed Jefferson's focus: Beyond law enforcement efforts to tackle crime itself, more attention and resources need to be devoted to the development of youth programs and opportunities, she said.

"In addition to the ... lack of support (the youths) might have at home or in their communities, they're not getting it anywhere else," she said. "So what I feel is happening (is) these kids have nothing to be proud of."

Cretella warned against residents mistaking the more recent rash of offenses as part of an "epidemic."

Despite the bump in violent crime from 2016, last year saw no recorded homicides in the police patrol district that includes West Ashley, the data showed.

But so far in 2018, there have been three.

Multiple assaults along the West Ashley Greenway this year also contributed to mounting concerns in the community. In May, police said a man riding a moped punched a woman jogging on the trail after she pointed out that such vehicles weren't allowed on the path. A suspect was arrested a short time later. Last month, two women exercising on the Greenway were punched during separate random attacks, police said. No arrests have been announced.

Cretella was assigned last year to coordinate patrol efforts in the area. The rate at which violent crime seemed to be increasing was not lost on the lieutenant.

In combating the perception of rising crime in West Ashley, Cretella boiled down his team’s strategy to two components. The first is to ensure that officers are out in the field and trying to develop relationships with residents. The second is holding residents accountable for taking steps to reduce crime — simple tasks such as locking car doors, securing residences and reporting crimes.

"It’s (about) building that trust in the community, and once they have trust in you as an officer, they’ll have trust throughout the department,” Cretella said.

Family and friends of slain teen appeal for help catching killer (copy)

Friends and family gather in October 2013 during a vigil at Forest Park in West Ashley for Malcolm Jefferson, who was killed that Oct. 8. File/Staff

In recent months, the lieutenant said, residents have been “more willing to talk to us.”

After being frustrated earlier in the year, Jefferson said she was surprised, but encouraged, by the dip in crime throughout West Ashley.

“That’s letting me know that we’re doing something right,” Jefferson said. "If this is working, I need to get out there and have my voice heard even more."

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Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-607-1052. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.