Prevention, education key in Richland County's war on gangs
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - We usually talk about gangs only when something happens like when a gang member gets arrested or a violent crime has been committed. But law enforcement has been working day in and day out to tackle gangs.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department's Gang Unit will target those specific cases, but they spend plenty of time on long-term investigations which they hope will curb some of the crime. That includes identifying and tracking gang members using local, state, and federal databases.
Recently, we went along with the Gang Unit as they executed a search warrant at a Columbia apartment complex.
Investigator Kelvin Griffin aided in the investigation.
"We come into your sister's house and if she allowed somebody else to bring drugs in here then that's her fault," said Griffin to an apartment tenant. "You understand what I'm saying? What am I supposed to do? Throw it away? I can't do that.
"Everybody is saying: 'It doesn't belong to me.' Nobody is saying who it belongs to, so what good is that doing me?"
Griffin and the unit were seeking marijuana and money. Griffin continued to speak with the tenant, who ended up getting cleared in the investigation.
"I'm going to be honest with you, you've got your kids in this situation, it could go bad," said Griffin. "You got to think about that."
The search warrant is a product of days and weeks of work. From traffic stops to long-term investigations -- all with the help of the community.
"Gang members are involved in crimes from A to Z," said Sgt. Vince Goggins. "From financial crimes to homicides. So, everything in between we deal with."
Goggins says gangs operate on a wave that ebbs and flows. He says there's a growing period where the younger members are trying to make a name for themselves.
"Gang members are making a conscious decision to be a gang member now where before we had a lot of gang members but the criminal behavior wasn't as active," said Goggins.
Sgt. Goggins says gangs may have peaked in the mid-2000's.
"Are we seeing those same issues that we saw then? No. Definitely not," said Goggins. "At that time, I think we were seeing drive bys on a weekly basis -- people shot and killed on a weekly basis."
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says the county has been dealing with gang troubles for a long time when people said it didn't exist.
"And I think that helped put us above the curve, is because we have been working on it when it wasn't popular and people said 'No, you're making this up. There are no gangs in Columbia. This is something you're creating.' We didn't listen to that. We were working hard and we continue to work hard and then when we got the community involved, then that's when we started seeing successes that we got for some years and now we've slowed down again," said Lott.
The Gang Unit tries to take a proactive approach, but they can't prevent everything. So, they respond when crime arises.
"That's why it's important to have that good intelligence in order to try to be proactive and go after those guys before these incidents happen," said Goggins.
But a big problem is repeat offenders.
"It's like a revolving door," said Goggins. "We put them in and they're back out on the streets. And some with very serious charges. And those are the ones who've made the conscious decision that they're going to live that criminal lifestyle."
Goggins says these violent repeat offenders is one reason why their tactic is to tear down the entire gang structure.
"We work with different agencies such as state and federal agencies to basically go after these guys and put them away for a long time instead of putting a guy in jail one day and he's out the next day. That's what we're trying to get around. We're trying to dismantle the entire group," said Goggins.
The Gang Unit says social media is a big tool for gang members who often will post what they're doing. Also a new trend they are seeing are more financial crimes like check fraud and counterfeiting. But this is only part of the story.
The responsibility to cut down on gangs isn't simply on the shoulders of law enforcement. It starts in the community.
"In order to attack this gang problem, we need to start young," said Griffin. "We need to change the thought pattern in some of these kids. We need to change the way they think."
Griffin also counsels kids who seem to be headed down the wrong path.
While each gang member may be different along with his or her reason for joining, Griffin says the core need is often the same.
"Most of the time with these kids, what they're doing, they're just looking for acceptance and it's not the point where they want to get in the gang to be killers, they just want to get in there and be accepted in something that's bigger -- to fit that part of life they're missing."
There are different programs within Richland County to help deter, intervene, and rehabilitate.
"You know it doesn't start, putting gang members in jail all the time. We've got to start with a pattern, we've got to go back. Let's start a little earlier and change their thought."
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