Bolton: More police alone isn’t the answer to gangs in Columbia

Associate EditorDecember 12, 2013 

Warren Bolton


— WHEN Columbia merchants, city leaders and law enforcement recently identified gangs as public enemy No. 1 in Five Points, one of my first thoughts was that the last thing this community needs is to take the simple and all-too frequent route of pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into building up police gang units without addressing root causes.

That declaration was in part what led Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott to direct his department’s gang and narcotics units to conduct a surprise operation one weekend in early November, aimed at cracking down on bad actors as well as a club claimed to be a haven for them. Days later, I was perusing Richland County Council’s Nov. 5 meeting agenda and came across this proposal by Councilman Seth Rose: “Move that Council fund the County Sheriff’s Office as needed to implement the Richland County Sheriff’s Department public safety plan for the 5 Points area in coordination with the Columbia Police Department and other law enforcement agencies.”

Uh-oh, I said. It’s started. But, fortunately, that wasn’t all that Mr. Rose proposed. There was also this: “Move to explore other programs for at risk youth that have been successful in other jurisdictions to curb gang and/or crime affiliation by youth.”

With all the clamor about how all police have do is to beef up forces and run the gang members out of Five Points and everything will be all right, it was a relief to see that Mr. Rose, who said he wants the sheriff’s department to address gangs countywide, understands that it’s going to take much more than that to truly curb gangs, crime and violence in Five Points and throughout our community.

Do we need to ensure there are an adequate number of law enforcement officers on the street who are properly equipped and supported? Absolutely. But that’s not enough.

Think about it: Sheriff Lott, a capable and decorated law officer, was the first to begin focusing on gangs in the Midlands, back in the late 1990s. With help from the sheriff’s department, I wrote a series of columns at the time about the rise in gang activity, particularly in local high schools.

But even with that early detection of gangs, they’re still here, and they’re still problematic. In other words, we need more than just law enforcement. It’s not because law officers aren’t doing their jobs or the gang units aren’t big enough. What police will tell you about any significant crime or security problem is that they need the assistances of the community to truly turn things around.

Waging war on gangs by locking up wayward youngsters after the fact can accomplish only so much. We must shut off the pipeline of young people who are feeding into gangs in the first place.

That’s why Mr. Rose’s proposal and efforts being led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, church leaders and other groups and individuals across Columbia are so important. That’s why initiatives such as Badges for Baseball, a program out of the state attorney general’s office that brings fourth- and fifth-graders and local police officers together for friendly games of baseball, are so important.

Efforts aimed at turning young lives toward positive pursuits and away from gangs and violence must take place in conjunction with a strong push by law enforcement to get bad actors off the streets. We’ve known forever that police alone can’t bring lasting relief to our community; yet we haven’t collectively put enough emphasis and energy behind helping our youth become productive, contributing citizens.

There are lots of people out there doing good work toward this end. But they don’t always get the attention they deserve, and they don’t always get the necessary support or funding. And yet they continue to work to improve the lives of wayward youth, particularly young black boys.

I’ve written in the past about the work that the Columbia Urban League, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Midlands, Mats 2 Men, Concerned Black Men of Greater Columbia, the 100 Black Men of Greater Columbia, Junior Achievement, Big Brothers Big Sisters and others do with young people.

In response to the latest crises, various groups of people of good will are having discussions across this city with the intent of coming up with new ways of tackling crime and violence as well as creating opportunities to help youths develop into good citizens.

In coming weeks, I intend to write about some of the positive programs and initiatives being offered to help curb crime and build young people. If you know of any, contact me via the phone number or email address below. Maybe they’ll get a mention.

Even with all the good work being done, though, the truth is that we have a long way to go. And some tough questions to ask: Does every program in place today need to exist? Should some programs be combined? What are we not doing, and are we willing to provide the necessary resources and energy to get it done?

While those and other questions are going to be tough to answer, there is one thing that we should all agree on: We must do something. And it’s got to be more than turning to the tired, time-worn notion of simply lock ’em up and throw away the key. Let me hear from you.

Saving Our Youth

An occasional look at organizations in our community that are working to channel young people into positive pursuits.

Previous columns

Jan. 5, 2014 - More police alone isn’t the answer to gangs in Columbia

Dec. 12, 2013 - Columbia community must come up with ways to save our kids

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or

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