An ambitious and unconventional program started three years ago in North Charleston has shown enough success when it comes to curbing crime that it piqued the interest of municipal officials attending the Municipal Association's Annual Meeting in July.
The Stop and Take a New Direction program takes a different approach to law enforcement when addressing issues such as drugs, guns and gangs in South Carolina. Instead of incarceration for a crime, the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina, along with local law enforcement, offered eight low-level drug dealers a chance to make a radical turn in their lives.
"We want to help these individuals from becoming career criminals by showing them another way of life free of crime," explained U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles. Nettles joined North Charleston's Assistant Chief of Police Reggie Burgess and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick to discuss the STAND program and North Charleston's experience during the Annual Meeting.
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles joined North Charleston's Assistant Chief of Police Reggie Burgess and Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick to discuss the STAND program
and North Charleston's experience during the Annual Meeting.
STAND began in 2011 as a one-year experiment to rid the Charleston Farms community of drugs and violence for good. It was a three-step assault on drug crime in the Charleston Farms neighborhood of North Charleston.
The first step involved the simultaneous takedown of 23 hardcore drug dealers. Having both local and federal involvement made an impact. Facing federal-level charges and sentencing "tends to get their attention," Nettles said.
For the second step, Charleston Farms residents were encouraged to attend the bond hearings for those arrested. Residents asked the judge to set high bonds to keep the dealers in jail. "It was valuable for us and the prosecutors to have community members in bond court," said Burgess. They told the judge firsthand how the dealers were affecting the community. North Charleston assisted residents with transportation to the bond hearings.
STAND began in 2011 as a one-year experiment to rid the Charleston Farms community of drugs and violence for good. It was a three-step assault on drug crime in the North Charleston neighborhood. (Photo/Courtesy of the City of North Charleston)
The third step was the most difficult. Federal, state and local officials set out to save eight street corner drug dealers from a life of crime. Instead of arresting them during the takedown, officials felt intense intervention with education, employment and counseling resources could transform the eight individuals from law breaking to law abiding.
North Charleston assigned two police officers to work with the STAND participants. Both officers worked in the Narcotics Division and had been heavily involved in the Drug Market Intervention program, the predecessor to STAND. The officers were asked to be problem solvers, figuring out what it would take to keep the eight men from selling drugs or committing other crimes. As the officers talked to each man, they found commonalities: no job, behind on child support, uneducated, record of illegal drug use.
"First and foremost, we knew we had to help them get a full-time job," explained Burgess. "They were on the corners to make money. By making it a priority, then delivering on that promise, we got their attention."
STAND participants and officers work together in the community garden.
(Photo/Courtesy of the City of North Charleston)
These were young men whose lives were filled with empty or broken promises - people letting them down, said Burgess. "Everything we told them we were going to do, we delivered, no matter how hard it was."
While a segment of the NBC show "Dateline" called the Charleston Farms neighborhood the "mean streets," Nettles was deliberate in not labeling this a high crime area. Part of the program's success was getting the entire community involved. Nettles felt that it couldn't be done if law enforcement treated the neighborhood as crime-ridden.
Program results for the most part have been positive. Assistant Chief Burgess pointed out that crime is down in the Charleston Farms area. From 2006 to 2009, the neighborhood saw 270 violent crimes and three murders. Since the program began, there have been 159 violent crimes and no murders.
As of July, four of the original eight offenders who started the program remain. The others were arrested for drug charges, violating the terms of the program.
An unexpected benefit has been the changing attitude of North Charleston's law enforcement officers. "We were asking our officers to talk with these individuals, help them and believe they could change," said Burgess. "It was "shock and awe" to our law enforcement system. We wanted them to help individuals that did not look at us very positively. We were the people standing in between them and their livelihood−dealing drugs. We had to change how we looked at these drug dealers. If we were going to give them the opportunity to do good in their lives, we had to put that attitude behind us."
North Charleston officers stepped up to the challenge. They worked behind the scenes lining up resources, mentoring the men and making sure they had books for class. Reaching beyond the STAND program, officers began helping others who could not see a way to move beyond their drug dealing life. Officers referred them to resources and talked to the U.S. Attorney's Office and local solicitors on the individual's behalf.
Nettles believes the program can be scaled for communities facing gang or gun issues as well. He hopes other communities across the state will embrace the concept. Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick is coordinating this and other outreach efforts.
Nettles acknowledged the STAND program is not going to win the war on drugs, but it could improve the quality of life in a neighborhood. It is a reclamation program − of both the community and the lives of the individuals involved.
He encouraged officials to think long term instead of day-by-day. "Is this a lot of resources for one community? No, not in the long run," he said.