What your city can do to address gang activity

During the Hometown Legislative Action Day last February, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the Association of SC Mayors, "Denial is the biggest thing that helps gangs grow. It is a sign of weakness to deny there is a problem. Our biggest problem in the past was that we were reactive ... We can't just do enforcement. We have to be proactive."

Local officials heard more of these warnings during a follow-up panel discussion at this year's Annual Meeting in Charleston.

Detective Cam Hunter of the Greenville Police Department, Investigator Chris Roberts of the Spartanburg Police Department and Senior Sergeant Justin Kitchens of Charleston County's Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center shared their perspectives that focused not only on local governments" direct role in gang prevention but also the role that the greater community must play.

The panelists agreed that every police department needs at least one officer trained in gang detection. Gangs have changed tremendously over the years and have grown in their complexity. Although many law enforcement officers may be familiar with some of the more well-known hallmarks of these criminal organizations, a trained eye will recognize much of the symbolism and other gang markers that exist today.

Departments that do not have resources to train more than one officer can turn to the South Carolina Gang Investigation Association as a valuable resource. The nonprofit association of gang investigators can offer valuable support to a department that lacks a full-fledged gang unit.

Each of the panelists also stressed the importance of greater communication between traditionally disconnected law enforcement entities. Officers working the streets need to stay in contact with resource officers who are working in schools and law enforcement professionals who are working in the jails. Increased collaboration and information sharing among these groups may allow officers to head off certain gang activity and detect emerging trends on the front end.

Each of the panelists also acknowledged that law enforcement officers must continue developing trust within the communities they serve. In many situations, gang members see the gangs as offering protection and security that was once found in families and communities. And gangs use various intimidation tactics to keep community members silent when gang activity is being investigated. By establishing trust between police and communities, law enforcement will increase the likelihood that community members will stand up to the gangs that are attempting to grow in their area.

Finally, panelists stressed that law enforcement cannot curb gang activity on its own. Community engagement is necessary. Gangs touch nearly every demographic and are not limited to any specific race, ethnic group or socioeconomic class. Communities should not wait for gang activity to become pronounced. Local leaders should take preventive steps to lessen the likelihood of gangs growing at all.

The panelists agreed that city officials and community members need to provide positive activities, especially for juveniles who can often be prime targets for gangs. Teachers and administrators need to pay attention to excessive bullying and increased levels of disorderly conduct among the youth they teach. Parents and guardians need to get back to parenting basics by becoming actively involved in their children's lives and limiting or eliminating exposure to violent stimuli found in a growing number of video games and other media.

Gangs may not be eliminated any time soon, but they can be kept in check, weakened and in many cases prevented from getting a foothold if law enforcement and communities work together and all members do their part.