Teaming up to take back a Columbia neighborhood

mlucas@thestate.comJanuary 27, 2013 

— Dozens of officers from the Columbia Police Department joined federal prosecutors and volunteers from across the Midlands on Saturday to help one Columbia neighborhood clean up its act.

“I love it,” said Theodosia Smith as she watched the activity unfolding in the Pinehurst community. Volunteers picked up trash, cut down overgrown brush and removed graffiti from the walls of buildings as children played nearby.

A longtime resident of the neighborhood dotted with modest homes, Smith, who also serves as the Pinehurst Community Association’s vice president, said the cleanup was long overdue.

“But it’s nice. I’m glad it’s being done,” she said.

Located a few blocks north of Benedict College’s Charles W. Johnson Stadium near Two Notch Road, the community has been plagued with gang activity and what U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles refers to as “open-air” drug sales, or drug transactions that take place in plain view.

Headed by Nettles’ office, the cleanup was designed to reduce the area’s overall crime rate. At the heart of the problem: the Four Seasons, a 36-unit apartment complex whose L-shape makes it easy for those selling drugs to monitor patrol cars or anyone else entering its small, courtyard-like parking lot.

Holes in several places along the property’s chain link fence have been deliberately cut, Nettles said, to make it easier for people to evade police, while vine-laced trees and overgrown brush around the perimeter provide places to hide. But all that was about to change Saturday.

In addition to patching the fence, volunteers and community members worked alongside police officers, talking and socializing. Four Seasons property owners, too, have been busy installing lighting and security cameras and enforcing the basic rules of the complex.

It’s a multidisciplinary approach that Nettles said works best when trying to tackle the issue of persistent crime.

“In the past, the way we dealt with this was to come in, arrest a bunch of people and put them in prison,” he said. But that approach doesn’t always work, he said, especially in ridding a community of crime for good.

What does work is to remove “a few bad actors” then “backfill with community involvement,” he said. “When you make the community a better place to be, you make it so there are other choices than selling drugs.”

And for those who help drug dealers, either by letting them into their homes to store or sell drugs, Nettles said his office is prepared to begin eviction proceedings. Many who live at the Four Seasons receive federally subsidized housing.

“If you think it’s unfair to kick the person out of housing who isn’t abiding by the rules, think about how unfair it is to deny housing to the person who will play by the rules,” he said, alluding to the long waiting list for subsidized housing.

It’s a strategy Nettles said is working in other South Carolina communities such as Gonzales Gardens, also in Columbia, and a neighborhood in North Charleston. That neighborhood will be the subject of a Dateline NBC segment airing Friday.

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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