Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott had a sobering message for mayors attending the Association's Hometown Legislative Action Day. "Gangs are throughout the state-big cities and rural areas-You will never get rid of gangs, but you can keep them from controlling your community."
Richland County Sheriff's Department Gang Unit
South Carolina has 3,249 "documented" gang members and more than 500 gangs, according to Lott. Nationally, there are more than 1.4 million gang members.
State law defines a criminal gang as a "formal or informal ongoing organization, association or group that consists of five or more persons who form for the purpose of committing criminal activity and who knowingly and actively participate in a pattern of criminal gang activity."
Lott urged the mayors to not be in denial about gang activity in their communities. "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," said Lott. "We can't just do enforcement. We have to be proactive."
Being proactive means being educated about gangs and gang activity, explained Lott. He lamented the fact there is no statewide, central point for information about gangs. "You need to take the initiative to be educated," he advised.
For law enforcement officers, the Criminal Justice Academy covers gangs briefly during its basic training. Throughout the year, the Academy offers advanced courses on understanding of criminal gangs and their impact on law enforcement, graffiti recognition and criminal street gang investigations.
Richland County Sheriff's Department is considered a leader in gang education. In 2013, the Department was recognized by the South Carolina Gang Investigators Association for its continued efforts to stop gang violence. Richland's Gang Unit collects information on gangs and conducts gang awareness classes free of charge to any group requesting the presentation. Lott has even given his deputies permission to provide the training in other communities, if requested.
Staff Sergeant Vince Goggins, head of the Gang Unit, gave the mayors a brief overview of the training his unit provides. Part of the presentation focused on deciphering gang graffiti. Calling graffiti a gang's billboard, Lott said, "The longer you allow it to stay up the more you are helping gangs promote themselves." Richland County deputies quickly remove gang graffiti as soon as it is discovered.
Education has to be an on-going process said Lott. Law enforcement, local officials and community members need continual training because gangs are constantly changing. Sheriff Lott mentioned three recent trends.
Just as in other parts of society, social media has had a big impact on how gangs recruit new members. "It is taking the place of gang graffiti as a recruitment tool," said Lott.
Also, gangs are moving toward more white-collar crimes, such as tax fraud, check fraud and counterfeiting. They are also involved in human trafficking and prostitution.
Finally, hybrid gangs are becoming more common. Unlike traditional gangs that formed along racial, ethnic and cultural lines, hybrids cross those lines.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, "Hybrid gang culture is characterized by members of different racial/ethnic groups participating in a single gang, individuals participating in multiple gangs, unclear rules or codes of conduct, symbolic associations with more than one well-established gang (e.g., use of colors and graffiti from different gangs), cooperation of rival gangs in criminal activity, and frequent mergers of small gangs."
Traditional gangs have a leadership structure; hybrids do not. They form to accomplish a specific task then disband quickly, making it a challenge for gang units to track them.
Lott stressed the importance of community-wide awareness, education and involvement. He explained it cannot just be the police. It has to be one team with involvement from residents, schools, businesses, neighborhoods and the faith community.
Gang activity affects the whole community. It does not recognize fences, borders or city limits. Gang activity in one part of town affects the quality of life and sense of security for the entire community.
Recognizing the need for a team approach, numerous communities across the state are working with their sheriff's departments and other agencies.
In February, the City of Barnwell and the Town of Williston entered into an intergovernmental agreement to help fund a county gang task force. Barnwell Sheriff Ed Carroll wants to get the task force, which will focus exclusively on gang and drug activity in the rural county, started as soon as possible.
"Rural counties like ours tend to have higher unemployment rates," explained Williston's City Administrator Kenny Cook. "This lack of employment adds stress to the social fabric of the communities and makes gangs more attractive to young people having difficulty finding jobs. This in turn discourages industry from coming to your area if there is a high crime rate. It becomes this cycle of unemployment and increased gang activity. We all believed it was necessary to try to address these issues now before the situation gets even worse. What is happening now is when one town cracks down the gangs concentrate in one of the other towns. We all believed a joint effort at the county level might be an effective way to approach the problem."