Crime & Courts

‘Too many damn guns.’ Amid increased gun crime Columbia gets grant aimed at reduction

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin summed up what he and others believe is a major problem in the city.

“We have too many damn guns on the streets,” he said Tuesday at a north Columbia community center.

The mayor, Columbia police chief and other federal and local authorities believe a new grant will reduce how many guns are on the streets and prevent the weapons from firing bullets for a crime.

Tuesday, at the Busby Street Community Center in north Columbia, Police Chief Skip Holbrook announced that the Columbia Police Department received the second largest grant in the department’s recent history. The Department of Justice awarded Holbrook’s agency almost $670,000 for combating rising gun violence in the city.

Since January, Columbia police have found or confiscated 705 illegal or unclaimed firearms, according to a statement from the department. From 2017 to now, the number of murders committed by guns has increased more than 15 percent, Holbrook said.

“Gun related violence is high in Columbia. It’s high compared to others cities Columbia’s size,” he said. “There’s a prevalence of guns that’s really unprecedented.”

With the grant, Holbrook created a new team in his department focused on more efficiently investigating and making arrests for gun crimes.

The Crime Gun Intelligence Unit or CGIU, as it will be called, consists of six new positions in the Columbia Police Department. Members of the team will help identify gun crime offenders as well as firearms sellers and buyers in order to make arrests. The team will also have a member dedicated to working with a national database of ballistic evidence that helps match firearms, bullet casings and slugs to guns and shooters. City crime data will also be analyzed and used by the team to home in areas that have the most gun violence.

All of this is to prevent, reduce and solve gun-related violent crime, according to Holbrook.

“It’s really about us being more efficient to collect our evidence, analyze our evidence and then take action quickly with the goal to identify our most prolific offenders” and “to prevent a shooting cycle.”

Other cities that have received similar grants include Baltimore, Houston, Tampa and St. Paul.

The latest Department of Justice grant is being combined with a grant of more than $78,000 that the department received in July to help create the Project Safe Neighborhood Initiative, which is focused on preventing and reducing gun violence in North Columbia.

At the Tuesday announcement, officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the United States Attorney’s Office also spoke.

The grant “literally is a game changer,” said Lance Crick, assistant U.S. attorney.

“We would rather prevent than solve crimes and these grants are an opportunity to take a big step in that direction,” he said.

Vince Pallozzi of the Charlotte ATF office, which has responsibility for Columbia, said the grant allows authorities to “maximize investigative efforts.”

“Investigative partners will share intelligence to swiftly investigate, apprehend and prosecute those individuals engaged in and committing violent crime,” Pallozzi said.

Part of the money will fund an officer who acts as a liaison between community leaders and known gun criminals, people at risk of being criminals or victims. The position, known as a Ceasefire Coordinator, also will work with employers to try to get gun criminals work.

Holbrook said this kind of coordination has proven effective. For a previous meeting between criminals, community leaders and employers, the department reached out to about 29 criminals, and 25 showed up. Of those 25, 21 have not committed a crime since December 2018. The four who were invited but did not show up later were shot or shot someone, Holbrook said.

Benjamin emphasized that the Columbia Police Department is using data and technology to address gun violence, saying the grant would assist in that effort.

In April, Columbia police began utilizing newly installed sensors that detect gunfire and relay where the shots came from in a matter of seconds.

“America has a gun problem,” Benjamin said. “Communities like ours continue to feel the pinch of it everyday. ... Preventing gun crime and solving them by taking the worst actors off the street is exactly where our investment needs to be.”

David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.