Preventing the gang menace from gaining more traction in South Carolina will require smart, aggressive police work and community groups willing to help hopeless youths find lives beyond the lure of the streets.
That was the message delivered Wednesday by criminal justice officials, clergy and others to the state's Gang Prevention Study Committee during a regional meeting in Charleston. The panel, headed by Attorney General Henry McMaster, is charged with studying ways to combat this growing criminal element in the Palmetto State, which has seen the rate of gang violence rise nearly 1,000 percent over the past decade.
When the group began its work, McMaster said, some communities were unaware a gang threat existed in the state. "I think those days are probably gone now," he said.
That threat has been driven home in recent months by a wave of shootings in Colleton County blamed on gang activity. The state grand jury is poised to begin investigating the bloodshed, which began Nov. 9 with a drive-by shooting in Walterboro that killed two adults and a 20-month-old girl, and left six others wounded.
Walterboro Police Chief Otis Rhodes told the committee the violent groups in his county differ from traditional gangs that have defined leaders, hierarchies and rules. The rural gangs tend to be loose associations of friends and family from close-knit areas, difficult groups for police to infiltrate.
They harbor deep-seated beefs against groups in other areas and prefer to settle scores on their own, he said. That might happen at a home, a car wash, a restaurant or some other public place.
"It's real dangerous not only for those people out there, but for the people in the surrounding neighborhoods as well," he said.
North Charleston Police Officer Dante Ghi, a gang investigator for his department, said youths come to gangs in different ways. Some are big-city kids who are sent to live with relatives in the Lowcountry and bring their gang ways with them. Others emulate what they see on television and in the movies, he said.
Police recently came across a 12-year-old self-professed gang member from Los Angeles whose family had moved to the area, Ghi said. The boy is now sharing his knowledge with other kids, he said.
"His older brother is a gang member who is in prison," Ghi said. "It's just a way of life for them."
State Law Enforcement Division Agent Mark Berube told the committee SLED has documented some 1,200 gang members in its statewide database known SCGangNET, but "a lot more" are likely out there. "We have a long way to go," he said.
Charleston Police Maj. Tony Elder said analysts in his department use GangNET and other resources to develop a full picture of offenders, chart crime patterns and even predict where future crimes might occur. Charleston police are now working with other area agencies in an attempt to build a centralized information hub in the county that would benefit all, he said.
Fourteenth Circuit Deputy Solicitor Sean Thornton said it is imperative that law enforcement agencies share information, as criminals do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries. He described how a recent drive-by shooting in Colleton was followed by another drive-by in Beaufort County, which then spurred an attempted shooting in Colleton.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen and McMaster also urged law enforcement to make greater use of the statewide grand jury. Its ability to compel testimony from reluctant witnesses can prove a powerful tool for cracking difficult gang cases, they said.
Clergy groups asked what they could do to help. Mullen urged faith-based groups to put aside their denominational differences and find ways to counsel, support and inspire at-risk kids to stay on the right path.
Henry Cleare of Columbia's Life Giving Outreach Ministries described how his church "adopted" a troubled neighborhood in the capital city that once had eight killings in a month. They've worked to take youths on field trips and got the city to put in a park that is now home to sports programs. Now, many of these teens have joined the church and have shared valuable information about the gangs, he said.
The Rev. Leon Maxwell of Trinity AME Church in Round O said clergy in Colleton County want to reach out as well and are planning to adopt the Dooley Hill area, starting by meeting with teens in a park this month. A feud between gangs from Dooley Hill and Sand Hill has been cited as a cause for some of the county's violence, authorities have said.
Mullen said he has seen firsthand how intervention can make a difference. Mullen helped spearhead the Camp Hope program that gives 7- to 12-year-olds on Charleston's troubled East Side a positive place to go on summer evenings. Kids need guidance and to know someone cares about them, he said.
"They're looking for security, friendship and support, and if they're not getting it at home or in the community they are going to look for it in other places," he said. "And that's where the gangs come in."