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As national gangs expand into South Carolina, authorities have a plan to fight back

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North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess holds up a photo of Ronjanae Smith during a press conference at the North Charleston Police Department on June 3, 2021, in North Charleston. The 14-year-old girl died after a shooting in the Deas Hill neighborhood that wounded 14 others. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

NORTH CHARLESTON — In the days after a shooting tore through the Deas Hill neighborhood, leaving a 14-year-old girl dead and 14 others wounded, the community was fearful and on edge. 

A daytime youth event May 22 turned into what authorities described as a raucous party after night fell. Dozens of shots erupted around 10:30 p.m., sending teenagers running down side streets, through yards and seeking refuge in the homes of neighbors who opened their doors. 

Ronjanae Smith lay mortally wounded. She would die less than 24 hours later at Medical University Hospital, the sole fatality out of the 15 people shot that night. 

Answers would begin to trickle in nearly two weeks later when police announced four suspects had been arrested. Court documents released June 4 tied the mass shooting to a rivalry between two gangs — the Bloods and Rollin 20s Crips.

Gang violence is not a new phenomenon, both in North Charleston and statewide, but authorities say a critical change has taken place in the past five years that's driving a new surge in violent crime. 

In 2005, legislators concerned about the growing impact of gangs spurred the state's Criminal Justice Academy and researchers at the University of South Carolina to survey law enforcement agencies around the state. 

The results, released in 2006, showed most local gangs weren't connected to national groups but often adopted their names. 

At the time, most agencies had only identified gang activity within five years, but researchers concluded the issue could stretch back further because it wasn't uncommon for cities to deny gang activity was taking place for fear of a bad public image. 

Before 2010, loosely organized groups engaged in street crime but their activity was tied to specific neighborhoods, said North Charleston Police Department Deputy Chief Ken Hagge. 

"The rise in violent street gangs has occurred since 2010, where a trend of gang membership went further than neighborhood lines," Hagge said. "Over the last three to four years, these hybrid gangs have transitioned into nationally tied gangs ... Crip sets, Blood sets, Gangsta Disciples, etc."

With national gangs vying for footholds in the Lowcountry, law enforcement officials around the region say they have a new approach to tackling the problem and hope to drive down the surge in violence. 

In late March, Charleston police officials applied for a grant they say will help them fund a Lowcountry task force aimed at taking the worst offenders off the street. 

Signs of progress

Local police won't know whether they'll receive the grant funding, provided through the S.C. Department of Public Safety, until this fall, said Charleston Police Capt. Andre Jenkins. 

In the meantime, work to identify gang members and secure robust state and federal prosecutions is underway, Jenkins said. 

Initially conceived as a gang unit, the group has been renamed the Field Intelligence Unit, a title he said better reflects what's being done. 

"Our guys have been meeting with our partners, talking about certain guys who are already validated gang members, talking to state prosecutors and (federal prosecutors)," Jenkins said. "We're making some great progress in getting some of these folks off the streets. We're starting to see a difference already."

Sgt. Christopher Ratliffe, who is supervising the unit's efforts, said the surge in gang activity and pattern of national gangs infiltrating the Lowcountry is driven in part by recruiting over social media. 

"A lot of it has come from the ease of communication through technology," Ratliffe said. 

State lawmakers last took sweeping action against gangs with the passage of the 2007 Criminal Gang Prevention Act.

While the law gives authorities some tools to identify gang members and sets the legal framework for prosecuting them for crimes committed on behalf of their criminal organization, it does not provide for gang injunctions — civil court orders authorities use to restrict a gang's activity by barring members and suspected members or associates from congregating or wearing certain types of clothing while in public. 

It's not illegal to be in a gang in South Carolina, but engaging in criminal activity as a gang member is, Ratliffe said. 

The practice has long generated controversy in states such as California, where critics have said injunctions fuel racial profiling and violate civil rights.

In November, a court settlement of a class-action lawsuit mandated that Los Angeles police and prosecutors could no longer broadly use injunctions and instead had to use them in a more targeted manner, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

Community connections

For Ratliffe and Jenkins, the lack of an injunction isn't a major problem. Charleston's regional task force doesn't aim to set up a dragnet. It's going after the worst offenders, they said. 

"This is going to be intelligence-based," Jenkins said. "It's not going to be target-based at all."

If the state grant funding, about $623,000, comes through, the city will have to match 10 percent, or $62,333, according to the application form filed in March. 

"The purpose of this project is to formalize existing partnerships, establish a multi-jurisdictional collaborative related to combating gang-related crime through the use of a Violent Criminal Offender Monitoring List," according to the document. "In 2020, homicides rose 100 percent. Sixty-eight percent of those homicides were gang-related." 

Although Charleston police are already at work combating the gang issue, the grant will allow the intelligence unit to buy computers, laptops, analytics programs and other equipment they need to more thoroughly complete their project, Jenkins said. Some of the money will also be used to set up diversion programs aimed at steering at-risk youth away from gang life. 

"As we're doing enforcement and getting these folks out, we're getting the maximum (sentencing) time for violent criminals," the captain said. "We're not looking for some guy for marijuana possession. These are violent offenders who commit robberies, shootings and homicides. We want to get these kids who are in the middle, who aren't gang members, and keep them from joining." 

Those diversion programs should be developed by the fall, Jenkins said. 

"The big picture from our perspective is the fact that the community has been saying there's gang members," he said. "We're not going to come in with Gestapo tactics. We're not going to come in profiling certain races or individuals. ... We're not going to come in and alienate entire communities. We know we have to work hand in hand with them."

The approach mirrors the work of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a program run by the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Everyone nowadays recognizes the need for resources toward prevention and education," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Holloway, who runs the program in South Carolina. "The community and police working in coordination is most effective in getting support."

Statewide impact

The surge of violent crime and expansion of national gangs isn't limited to the Charleston area. 

In 2019, a Post and Courier investigation found gangs took root and expanded behind the walls of South Carolina's prisons where officials estimated, at the time, that one of every 10 prisoners was a validated gang member.

Gangs provided protection, the newspaper found. Membership afforded inmates access to contraband such as cellphones, tobacco and drugs, and their activities often extended far outside prison walls. 

In December, federal prosecutors announced sweeping indictments against 40 people known to be Insane Gangster Disciples members or associates who operated a $50 million-a-year drug trafficking operation out of South Carolina's state prisons. 

For years, imprisoned members of the gang used contraband cellphones to orchestrate beatings, kidnappings and murder, according to the 147-count indictment.

The case was the largest racketeering conspiracy federal prosecutors had uncovered in South Carolina.

In May 2020, federal and state authorities announced indictments against 13 defendants believed to be members of associates of the Dorchester Terrace Crew, a North Charleston street gang they say was peddling drugs and spreading violence around the region. 

Authorities in Lexington County have tied a June 9 shooting that left an 11-year-old girl dead and another child injured to probable gang activity. 

Ken Hagge, the North Charleston police deputy chief, said his agency collaborates with local, state and federal partners to tackle large-scale cases because gang members no longer confine themselves to specific neighborhoods or cities. 

"(We have) a great working relationship with these partners to help investigate violence and drug trafficking, which largely drive gang operations," he said.

North Charleston police also work with the community on programs aimed at steering young people away from gang life, Hagge said. 

Lt. Rick Carson, a spokesman for the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, said his agency has been fortunate. 

"We still seem to be dealing with the neighborhood problems," Carson said. "There have been a couple of instances where we were able to connect the dots between suspects and national gang members. However, those persons did not live in the county. They came into the county, committed a crime, and returned to their home turf."

The Sheriff's Office hasn't formed a gang unit and there are no plans to do so in the immediate future, he said.

If crime patterns change and a need arises for such a unit, Carson said his agency would look into funding a targeted gang unit. 

Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis said his agency has a detective collaborating with the Charleston police Field Intelligence Unit and has a deputy assigned to the FBI's Violent Crimes Task Force. 

"The limited gang activity we have here I think honestly comes from the metro area," Lewis said. "What we typically find is they don’t live here but they may be up here conducting some kind of criminal activity. We don’t see these organized type gangs operating in Berkeley County." 

Still, the sheriff said he and his deputies are treating the gang problem seriously. 

"Any time these issues come up we work very hard to go after those violent offenders," Lewis said. "We’re heavily involved and committed to helping the other agencies."

Federal solutions

As local law enforcement agencies continue grappling with gang violence, some are turning to federal authorities for help. 

Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office can have more resources at their disposal to bring stronger cases against gang members and career criminals, Holloway said. 

Gun law violations carry harsher penalties at the federal level.

The Armed Career Criminal Act, for example, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for felons convicted of unlawful possession of a firearm who have three prior state or federal convictions for violent crimes or serious drug law violations, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams. 

Federal authorities are also able to more effectively target large criminal organizations and bring substantial cases against them, Williams said. 

But turning to the federal court system isn't the sole solution to gang crime, according to Rhett DeHart, Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina. 

DeHart said he and his team are working with state authorities to lower the violent crime rate, but they can't handle all cases. 

There are 40 federal prosecutors covering a state of about 5 million people, he said. If they tried to handle all unlawful possession of a firearm cases their office would quickly be overwhelmed. 

"They want us to focus on the worst gun cases," DeHart said. 

Whether falling under federal or state jurisdiction, the impact of gang-related gun violence is evident in communities like North Charleston's Deas Hill. 

It was June 1, 10 days after the mass shooting at the neighborhood party gone awry. 

A somber procession moved slowly down Abraham Avenue outside the Royal Baptist Church Family Life Center, where hundreds of mourners gathered. Bagpipes played "Amazing Grace," as two white horses pulled a white carriage carrying 14-year-old Ronjanae Smith's coffin. 

It would be two more days before North Charleston police announced four suspects were arrested in connection with her death. 

Even now, more than a week after the arrests, Ronjanae's family continues to seek justice. Her father, Ronald, has founded the nonprofit, "Positive Vibes: Ronjanae Smith, Inc."

"Her death will not be in vain but it will give light to the community and the youth," he wrote on Facebook. "Change is coming." 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-323-9175. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers the city of Charleston. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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