Columbia police focus on crime hot spots as they make case for gang-free zones in city

nophillips@thestate.comOctober 26, 2013 

On a recent sunny afternoon, Sara Thomas stood by her front screen door to keep an eye on her three grandsons playing basketball around a goal in the middle of King Street.

As much as she watched the boys, she also kept an eye on the setting sun.

“When it gets dark, I bring them inside,” Thomas said. “There’s no shooting in the day. They shoot at night.”

Thomas’ wooden rental house in the Lyon Street Community off Millwood Avenue sits in the middle of an area that is considered a “hot spot” by the Columbia Police Department. Those hot spots are identified as high-crime areas based on statistics that are updated daily in the police department’s computer system.

In 2013, crime across the city has dropped, according to police statistics. However, as the recent shooting of 18-year-old Martha Childress in Five Points has illustrated, it only takes one high-profile, violent crime to send shockwaves through a community, making people feel uneasy about their safety. That incident has become a tipping point for a renewed focus on gangs in Columbia.

Now, the city wants to take the necessary legal steps to ask for court orders that bar gang members from designated areas. To do that, the city must put together data that shows how many crimes are related to gang activity.

Where the trouble is

Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago said compiling gang data is time-consuming because analysts have to read every detail of incident reports to figure out suspects, victims and others who might be in gangs or affected by them.

Broader crime data is easier to compile. Day in and day out, the hot spot reports tell police where the problems exist. More than likely, Santiago said, those hot spots will overlap with gang-infested areas.

Santiago looks at color-coded maps of those hot spots every day. But the monthly picture is the one he uses to best determine where his officers need to be deployed.

“We use these maps to pinpoint where crime is, and then just flood those areas,” Santiago said.

In Columbia, the three areas with the highest concentration of people are also the areas with the highest concentration of crime: downtown, North Columbia and the Harbison/Bower Parkway area, Santiago said.

But the hottest problem areas are in the heart of the city, according to crime data maps provided by the city.

The hotspot maps reviewed by the Columbia Police Department command staff reveal degrees of criminal activity. The most crime-ridden areas appear in red, with the colors fading to orange, yellow, light green, dark green and then white as crime reports ease.

Hot spots can change based on seasonal trends or police tactics.

A busy shopping weekend in the Harbison area attracts shoplifters and car thieves, while a Saturday night during football season in Five Points might draw robbers, thieves and drug dealers.

A place that is a hotspot for property crimes may not be the same for violent crimes.

On the crime maps provided by the police department, the area with the most overall crime is in the heart of downtown that is bordered by Laurens, Pendleton, Woodrow and Wilmot streets.

But when the analysis is pared to violent crime, the red spot covering that area on the map significantly shrinks to cover a couple of blocks near the intersection of Gervais Street and Millwood.

On the violent crime map, the hottest area is in neighborhoods that extend several blocks off Colonial Drive between S.C. 277 and West Beltline Boulevard.

And police know certain streets and even blocks are problem spots.

For example, English Street is a residential road divided by West Beltline Boulevard where police see a high number of burglaries, Santiago said.

The north end of English Street is a mix of rental and owner-occupied houses where the yards are filled with election signs and Halloween decorations. On the violent crime map, that side is green, which symbolizes a lower crime rate.

The south end has more rental property and more homes with overgrown yards and boarded windows. And it runs through an area that is yellow and orange on the crime map.

As Keilo Norris, a 35-year-old disabled Army veteran who did three tours in Iraq said, “You don’t walk down English Street at night.”

Norris, who lives in another part of that hot spot, on Edison Street across from T.S. Martin Park, said he sees a lot of police in the neighborhood.

But their presence doesn’t always prevent crime. Earlier last week, someone set a field on fire near W.A. Perry Middle School, he said.

Deloris King has lived on the north end of English Street for 43 years. So has her mother. And they have seen it change as older people pass away and their homes transition to rental property.

Mostly, she griped about minor problems – loud music, an argument that gets loud – but, at times, violent crime has rippled through the neighborhood.

In September 2012, suspects in a fatal shooting at a McDonald’s on the corner of Two Notch Road and Beltline Boulevard ran through her yard as they fled police. Police woke her up to ask permission to search the yard for weapons, she said.

King is willing to work with police to bring about change. And she believes it is important to know her neighbors so she can try to settle problems such as loud noise before calling police.

“I’ve told my neighbors, ‘I won’t call the police on you unless I absolutely have to,’” she said.

Just off Gervais

Back on King Street, neighbors said the street turns progressively worse as they drive the block from Gervais Street toward Millwood Avenue.

Neighbors said they want a give-and-take with police.

Lakiea Anderson, 31, said she recently called police because a group of girls were fighting. She thought police took too long to respond, and when they arrived, did not take the incident seriously.

“When they come, it’s like a joke because we’re in an all-black neighborhood,” Anderson said. “Not everybody out here commits crime. There’s good people on the street, too.”

She said police ride down the street and wave. But they should spend more time on foot, she said.

For Thomas, the biggest worry is keeping her grandsons away from the gangs and the guns that are so close by.

“They need to keep the guns off the street,” she said. “It’s all about the guns. Back in the day, it was fist fights. Today, it’s guns, guns, guns.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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