Bolton: Columbia should unite over Five Points to fight crime citywide

Associate EditorOctober 16, 2013 

— “ If this community doesn’t pull together to address the complex issues at play in Five Points, it’s only a matter of time before a senseless, tragic death occurs — one that could rip the fabric of Columbia and cause division on any number of levels, including between black and white citizens. The next beating, the next bullet could be that fatal one that sets off that powder keg.”

THIS PAST weekend, a bullet came perilously close to striking that powder keg I wrote about back in March. Thank God it didn’t end in death.

But it was tragic: An 18-year-old USC student was critically injured and could be paralyzed for life. Let’s all pray for Martha Childress’ complete healing and strength for her and her family.

We all ought to be angry: First at the shooter’s utter disregard for life; he should be punished to the full extent of the law.

But we also should be angry that we’ve been watching this unfold and predicting such an event — or worse — while obviously not taking sufficient steps to prevent it.

With every gun shot, knife attack or beating that occurs in Columbia’s Five Points, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the urban village is more than a confluence of a few streets.

It’s a mega-intersection, a place where lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds with lots of different motives come together. While much emphasis understandably has been placed on addressing the crime and violence in Five Points, the things that are happening there don’t all originate there.

They come from across the city and, indeed, beyond.

If Columbia is truly going to address crime in Five Points, it must be equally serious about attacking crime in the northern and southern parts of the city. If gangs are active in one part of Columbia, what’s to stop them from traveling to a crowded Five Points — or anywhere else — to cause mayhem? If thieves and carjackers are active in one part of the city, what’s to stop them from traveling to where hundreds upon hundreds gather, parking their cars hither and yon?

Let’s be real. Five Points, as quaint and alluring as it might be to some by day, becomes party central at night. Or should I say in the wee hours of the morning? The concentration of bars and restaurants, where many unfortunately drink far more than they ought to, also draws people who prey on others who might not be thinking clearly or in a position to protect themselves.

Because it’s a major meeting place where many from across the city not only pass through but congregate for hours at a time on a regular basis, Five Points gets a lot of attention. City officials naturally want to make the area safe for locals and visitors as well as protect business owners’ investments.

But it would be short-sighted to believe that it’s possible to make Five Points safe without making other areas safer and addressing the root causes of crime across our capital city.

You know why there’s crime and shooting in Five Points? Because there is crime and shooting across Columbia.

Last month, gun shots rang out across Columbia and Richland County with a vengeance. Six people were killed.

If the communities where these unfortunate deaths occurred don’t get any safer, how is Five Points going to? The same element that commits break-ins, assaults and other crimes in the city’s neighborhoods invariably ends up passing through or congregating in Five Points.

As Mayor Steve Benjamin noted in a conversation we had a couple days ago, most of the people involved in incidents in Five Points — whether they’re victims or perpetrators — don’t come from Five Points.

If troublemakers are coming from other parts of the city, we’ve got to be willing to deal with them in any part of the city, not just in Five Points. Want to stop gangs in Five Points? Stop gangs in the city’s neighborhoods. Want to stop drug activity in Five Points? Stop drug activity in the neighborhoods.

Just ask residents in other parts of Columbia whether they have problems with drugs, gangs and violence, including shootings. Their response would be a resounding, “yes.”

City police point out that crime has decreased, and that’s great. But the rate is still significant and still unacceptable. While Columbia police work hard to protect residents, the fact is that they need help to further reduce crime and restore a sense of safety and security across the city.

Mayor Benjamin is inviting members of the public to attend a 5:30 p.m. meeting today at the Columbia Police Department’s PACE Team Headquarters, at 1001 Harden St., to discuss what this community can do to address violent crime and repeat offenders.

This discussion can’t be as narrow as just Five Points or just how to punish people after they’ve committed crimes.

As I’ve written before, many of those causing problems in Five Points and across this city and county are young black men. I’ll be the first to say that it should be up to parents to raise their children and ensure that they don’t become menaces.

But the fact is that many parents of all races fail their kids. Many fathers in particular don’t take the active roles they need to in children’s lives. And when parents can’t or won’t act, this community must decide what it is prepared to do to help turn these young people around and make them productive contributors rather than lawbreakers.

While there certainly are some who are older who are too far gone and must face the criminal justice system, the fact is that we can, we must, take proactive steps to keep youth from becoming engaged in gangs and crime in the first place.

Understand this: Ultimately, many of them are going to pass through some intersection, whether it’s the one just up from your house — or mine — or a larger gathering place such as Five Points.

It shouldn’t take the senseless shooting of Martha Childress or the horrific death of 22-year-old Amanda F. McKemie, shot while riding in a car in the Greenview neighborhood, for this community to pull together and address crime collectively and more broadly. Let’s not let this opportunity pass. Not this time.

Columbians must make a choice: Five Points can be one of the most dangerous intersections in this community or the intersection where leaders and residents decided to meet to address crime citywide, once and for all.

What’s it going to be?

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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