June 6, 2013

Fighting Back in the Capital City

Does Columbia have a violent crime problem?

In the summer of 2011, an 18-year-old who had recently graduated from Dreher High School was severely beaten while jogging home from Columbia's Five Points district. Eight teenagers who were captured on the area's security cameras were charged in the assault. It was the worst in a series of high-profile, violent crimes in the area that stretched over at least two years and led to increased patrols, a curfew prohibiting those 16 and younger from being in Five Points between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. and more security cameras installed or planned for the area.

Police and public officials say that the measures have worked and crime is down, but the perception that Columbia still has a violent crime problem persists and is expected to be a major issue in the next mayoral race. 

Statistics compiled by the State Law Enforcement Division, from local government reports, show a fairly consistent decline in violent crimes statewide, including the Columbia area. In Richland County, the most recent statistics available show a decrease in the violent crime rate number of incidents per 10,000 residents to 91.6 in 2011 from 99.4 the previous year. Total incidents were down to 3,565 from 3,823 during that period.

However, there were some anomalies. Sheriff Leon Lott says that an increase in murders in the county can be attributed to deaths related to domestic violence. And Richland County, including Columbia, showed slight increases in rapes and robberies in 2011.

Police and elected officials say that they have to do a better job not just reducing crime, but also reducing public anxiety about crime. Deputies and officers are taking a more hands-on approach to preventing crime rather than just chasing down the bad guys, they say. These tactics include community watch groups and programs to identify troubled youth before they become career criminals.

Mayor Steve Benjamin says that the city is on track to begin using "predictive policing" in which computer software gives officers a several-block radius where crime is likely to occur based on a statistical analysis of where crime has occurred in the past.

The State Law Enforcement Division collects crime information from hundreds of policing agencies across the state, including cities, college campus forces and sheriff's offices. The Richland County Sheriff's Department and the Columbia Police Department are the primary agencies for the city, and their numbers account for the bulk of the crime reported in Richland County.

The numbers show that murders were down slightly overall (25 from 27), but were up in the county's jurisdiction to 14 from 10. The city saw its 2011 murders drop to 10 from 16 the year before. Sheriff Lott says that the rise in murders continued in 2013, attributable to an increase in deadly domestic violence incidents. "Of the homicides that we've had, the majority of them have been domestic-related," he says. "What creates fear in the community is when you have homes broken into and you have robberies of businesses and people. People fear that they could be a victim at any time from a random type robbery."

Rape and robberies were up slightly countywide in the 2011 statistics maintained by SLED, but Sheriff Lott says that those were improved in 2013. Aggravated assaults were down in 2011 from 2010, but burglaries were up for the year, as were car thefts, while larcenies were down. Those trends mostly held for the individual jurisdictions in 2011.

By comparison, the Columbia area's crime rate is almost twice that of other urban counties. But it must be noted that the Columbia area includes all seven municipalities and the colleges in the totals. Greenville County's 2011 violent crime rate was 56.3 incidents per 10,000 residents and Charleston County reported 51.6 incidents per 10,000 that year. Both counties showed improvement from the previous year.

The county with the highest crime rate in 2011 was Greenwood, with 188 incidents per 10,000 residents, while the lowest rate was in Edgefield County with 16 incidents per 10,000 residents.

Perception vs. Reality

While it is true there has been an increase in some crimes, the perception that crime is rampant in the Columbia area is just false, local police and officials say. "The numbers show that crime is down," Columbia's interim police chief Ruben Santiago says. "We're dealing with an issue of perception. Today, the technology of the Internet and social media and of course newspapers and other media outlets report things so quickly, whereas in the past, you might have only seen it from a couple of sources."

That echo chamber repeating the same cases over and over along different lines of communication can create the belief that more crime is happening. Still, Santiago says, that has to be dealt with as well. "Our biggest tools have been increased communications with business owners and with residents about what the issues are," he says. "The perception of crime is definitely there, and we don't want to downplay that because our mission is also to deter the fear of crime. The numbers could be down, but people are still fearful, and we still have work to do."

The city says that crime has continued to decrease in 2013. The mayor's policy adviser, Michael Wukela, says that violent crime was down nearly 30 percent in the first quarter of 2013 from the same period in 2012 and property crime was down 15 percent. 

"That is evidence that new efforts are working," Mayor Benjamin says. "With crime down in every single category with the exception of auto break-ins, these are numbers to crow about. We are going to continue to be vigilantly working with our command staff, with other law enforcement and with our federal and state partners as well. We are going to make Columbia the safest city in the Southeast, if not America. That's our commitment; that's our No. 1 charge. We take it seriously."


Whether the city's new tactics are working is up for debate, says Larry Sypolt, 35, a former Richland County deputy, FBI analyst and current candidate for mayor of Columbia. Sypolt is a big proponent of merging the city of Columbia police force with the Richland County Sheriff's Department.

Mayor Steve Benjamin also pushed for consolidation recently, but the proposal was rejected by Columbia City Council. Both Lott and Benjamin say that they think the issue is dead and the political will does not exist in the city for a merger. But Sypolt has made it a cornerstone of his campaign. "Basically you are having to pay for things twice," he says. "You've got a lab in the county; you've got a lab in the city. You've got a gang unit in the county; you've got a gang unit in the city. You've got an investigative unit in the county; you've got another one in the city." Those redundancies and a lack of communication create ineffective responses to crime, Sypolt says.

"While I'm working a burglary trend in this neighborhood, the city is working a burglary trend in a neighborhood only a block away. But they don't know what's going on right next door," he says. "And they'll say that they've got cooperative agreements and they're talking to each other, but I'm telling you they don't. They do not talk. There's an animosity there; it's like a turf war."

Mayor Benjamin touts the new cooperation agreements between the city and the neighboring counties of Richland and Lexington as well as some of the smaller neighboring municipalities. "When someone dials 911, most people don't care who shows up as long as someone with a blue light shows up," he says. "That type of cooperation has led to decreases in crime across the region and certainly in the city."

Although Benjamin supported consolidation, he says, a city the size of Columbia deserves a police chief. The city has begun the search for a new chief, which will be the seventh since 2007.

In April, Chief Randy Scott resigned, citing post traumatic stress disorder related to the 2005 death of a deputy he had hired while he worked at the Richland County Sheriff's Department. Scott's two and a half-year tenure was the longest of his five predecessors most of whom resigned or were fired following allegations of misconduct.

Proactive approach

The sheriff, police chief and mayor all say the key to keeping crime down is to stop it before it happens. "I think a lot of that's got to do with what the community does," Sheriff Lott says. "Community involvement is what's really contributed to crime being down.

"We do a better job because of technology and training. But it can't be one-sided. The community's got to be part of it too. And over the years, we've seen better involvement from the community and a better commitment from the community working with us, and that contributes to crime coming down."

Lott says that there were fewer than 10 neighborhood watch groups when he became sheriff in 1997. That number is now more than 400. "Our goal is to have one in every community," he says. "As a new community program is developed, we try to be involved with that from day one."

Officers from the county's community action teams (called CAT deputies) help crime watch groups form, attend meetings, keep group members energized and provide them with information about crime trends.

"A crime watch group is nothing new, they've been around for years," the sheriff says. "But normally, a crime watch group wouldn't get formed until there was crime in the community. People got up in arms, formed a crime watch group. They were successful and crime went away, then the crime watch group would stop and crime would come back."

The city is working on intervention programs as well, such as its new RISK Rescuing Inner City Students and Kids program that is sort of an updated version of the scared-straight programs from the 1970s and 80s. Recently, about 20 youth deemed by their families, schools and law enforcement to be dangerously close to choosing the wrong path spent the night in a mock jail set up at a Columbia city courthouse as part of the program.

Technology also will play a part in future policing measures, including one method that sounds straight out of science fiction but is really just a technologically-enhanced version of an officer knowing his beat. 

In predictive policing, a computer program analyzes crime data provided by local police agencies. The software uses that data to forecast within a very small area, say a city block, where and when is the highest risk for crime to happen.

"It's real time software that officers can use on a daily basis that lets them know where potential hotspots might be in the city for potential crimes," Mayor Benjamin says. "We're not talking about convicting people of crimes they didn't commit, but being able to respond very affirmatively to crimes in progress because you know where to go literally to prevent some crimes."

The city also is using some older technology security cameras in entertainment districts that Benjamin and Santiago say not only help solve crimes, but also help prevent them. "You want to place the cameras so you can solve crimes, but you want to make sure that people are aware that there are cameras because then they serve as a deterrent," Benjamin says. "If people know they're being watched and have some common sense, they are less likely to commit certain crimes."

While security cameras didn't prevent the beating of the Columbia teenager in summer 2011, footage from those cameras led to the arrest of eight teenagers in that case.