Crime clustered around complexes

jwilkinson@thestate.comJuly 3, 2008 

The majority of crime in the sprawling district of three-dozen neighborhoods generally known as North Columbia is concentrated around five large apartment complexes, statistics show.

Although they are not the only complexes where serious crime occurs, Gable Oaks, Latimer Manor, Colonial Village, The Colony and Ames Manor combined were the scene of more than 250 serious crimes over the past three years:

• Ten murders

• 30 assaults with intent to kill

• 59 aggravated assaults

• 17 armed robberies

• 34 acts of domestic violence

• 124 residential burglaries

And those are just the crimes that have occurred inside the boundaries of the complexes. Crime associated with the apartments also spills over to the surrounding areas.

Gable Oaks resident Patricia Thompson, 33, remembers a December night in 2006 when more than 50 shots were fired into the complex, including a couple that barely missed her sleeping son.

“People are scared to leave their home at night,” she said in February, shortly after a young man was gunned down near her apartment. “You got gang members going through.”

The violence Thompson fears manifests itself in many ways in North Columbia.

Later on the same February night that she was interviewed, more than a dozen teenage girls gathered on a basketball court at Latimer Manor. Words were exchanged. The crowd got louder. At least two took out baseball bats and started beating each other, as witnessed by a reporter and photographer from The State.

Minutes later, five Columbia police cars and a Columbia Housing Authority police car pulled into the parking lot.

The girls scattered.

It’s nothing new.

Police are all too familiar with fighting at and near Latimer Manor. They respond to domestic calls at least every day, and group fights a couple times each month, said Columbia Police Capt. Isa Greene. In the summer, it’s more frequent. And she knows some incidents don’t get reported.

A recent report on youth and gang activity highlighted problems at these and other North Columbia apartment complexes. The problems are especially pronounced in The Colony.

Residents interviewed for the gang study described a lawless, treacherous place where gunshots and fights occur every night. Drug dealers and gang members get safe haven from young female residents, and violence, robberies and burglaries are common, they said. Parents make children sleep on the floor because they’re afraid of errant gunshots coming through the walls.

Those fears were confirmed by a half-dozen Colony residents interviewed by The State last month.

They said people gather by the hundreds in the complex’s parking lots after dark on the weekends, drinking, using drugs, and preying on women and children. Often, the crowds are made up of armed youths as young as 10 years old, the residents say.

Residents said Columbia police cruise through but don’t have much impact on the activities. It is a situation that has worsened in the past two years, they said, as the city under former chief Dean Crisp got away from the concept of focused, community policing.

Columbia Police “come in here with an attitude,” said one resident, who wished to be unnamed for fear of reprisals by both the criminals and the police. “We’re the victims, but they treat us like the suspects.”

Sheriff Leon Lott said that Columbia police are first to be dispatched if the call comes from inside the city limits. If needed, sheriff’s deputies also respond.

“They are still in Richland County and we’re still the sheriff,” Lott said. “If we see there is a problem, we respond to them.”

Columbia city manager Charles Austin acknowledges the city has fallen down on the job. He said new Columbia police chief Tandy Carter was hired with a mandate to reinstitute community policing.

“We need to let him get his feet under him, then set up some meetings” with the apartment managers and residents, Austin said. “We need to find the common denominators.”

Here they are:

• Most of the complexes accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers, which help low-income residents pay rent for housing. But the federal government doesn’t require any security measures such as cameras, fencing or private guards to protect residents from crime.

• Landlords say they don’t have the money to pay for private security to clean up the problems.

• Most of the crime isn’t caused by Section 8 clients — who can lose their housing assistance for violations of the law — but by outsiders.

Pati Gerrard, vice president of Colorado Springs-based Trent Enterprises, which owns Colony Apartments, said the company has invested about $200,000 for 24 security cameras.

The company is willing to invest an additional $70,000 or so for fencing, she said. But the fences won’t be effective unless the city closes a street that runs through the complex into two others, she said.

“We have tried to come up with good solutions,” she said. “But I am not getting the cooperation I need from the city.”

Gerrard said the company can’t afford private security guards to patrol its 80 buildings and 45-acre campus.

“There is no profit here,” she said. “And I haven’t had good experiences with private security in the past. What we need is a good relationship with local police.”

Austin said he thinks companies that collect rent from people have an obligation to provide a safe place for them to live.

“I don’t buy the argument” that the complexes can’t afford security, he said. “You can’t put a price on the safety and well-being of people.”

Sam Davis, who represents much of North Columbia on Columbia City Council, also isn’t buying it.

Many of the owners just don’t care what goes on, he said, as long as the federally subsidized rent checks keep coming in.

“They are too cheap to put in security,” Davis said. “They have failed these people (the residents). They have failed to secure their properties. People should know that.”

Staff writer Lee Higgins contributed to this report.

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