August 7, 2013

Police team with faith-based community against gangs

Calling gang-related crime "the devil's work," Mayor Steve Benjamin called Monday on men and women of faith to be at the center of discussions on ridding Columbia of violence, like last month's shooting death of D'Andra Pelzer.

A news conference in Pelzer's Lyon Street neighborhood, off Gervais Street, was a display of unity featuring city political leaders, nonprofit groups, churches, neighborhood residents and police.

Police mug shots of the two people charged in Pelzer's death were on display: A 20-year-old man with gang connections accused of randomly shooting Pelzer as she stood in a crowd on McDuffie Street at 3:30 a.m., and the 18-year-old woman who police say drove him away from the scene in an old Crown Vic.

Pelzer, the mother of two, was 24.

The Rev. A.A. Dicks said his Friendship Baptist Church would be the host of what he called "three peas in a pod," three nonprofit groups that are coordinating their efforts to help young people avoid gang life.

"We're not here to enforce any laws," said Dicks, who has been a spiritual force in the neighborhood for 32 years. "Our job is to partner with them to be sure we have proper prevention in place."

The programs he mentioned involve the arts, tutoring and a Christian program aimed at children whose fathers are in jail.

Neighborhood leader Marvin Heller said he welcomed the attention.

"Most of the good things done here were done privately. Folks who lived, worked or prayed here," he said. "So it's time we got the focus of the city."

Benjamin, who stands for re-election as mayor in November, said collaboration among groups would help focus resources on "hot spots," while police Chief Ruben Santiago said engaging law-abiding citizens would "make sure the majority rules."

The event was held at St. Anna's Park, with its newly paved basketball courts, sapplings, shaded picnic shelter, shiny playground equipment and spray pool improvements made largely with federal grants.

While no children played there Monday morning, Heller said the improvements had proved popular and not just with children. "We're starting to see parents, fathers, walking around while their kids play," Heller said.

Heller said he'd like to see information flow between police and residents.

"There's been six shootings in the last several weeks, but only one reported," he said. "The chief tells me each time there's a shooting it's gang-related. If it is, the home base is Gonzales Gardens."

Heller said the public-housing complex must be made safer and more attractive. "If they can't do that," he said, "they need to start over."

Contact Dawn Hinsaw at

The State