With gun violence in Columbia rising to nearly record levels, the Columbia Police Department and local organizations are working to offset gang violence and get local youth on the right track.
In January and February of this year, CPD responded to the highest concentration of shots fired in Columbia since the 1990s. At a February press conference, CPD Chief Ken Burton confirmed at least seven of the 11 incidents were connected to each other and linked to gang activity. Less than a month later, CPD identified four new shots fired incidents as gang-related.
"What we've encountered isn't even a matter of testifying — we're not even getting that far," Burton said at the press conference. "We're actually having victims that won't talk to us at the scene of the crime, which is, as you can imagine, very frustrating for us."
Lorenzo Lawson is the executive director for the Youth Empowerment Zone, a local organization that reaches out to at-risk youth. Lawson said this pattern of uncooperative witnesses and victims has ties to race and culture.
"In criminal culture, it's always been that you don't talk to police — you don't snitch, you don't rat," he said. "I think the police have a lot to do with it with profiling and disrespect, especially toward young African-American males, and that has created a distrust toward law enforcement and the justice system."
In response to the upswing in gun violence, CPD started doing proactive patrols in high-crime areas, which led to multiple arrests in connection with the shootings. The department has now moved away from the proactive patrols, but the Street Crimes Unit is continuing to investigate the shootings while CPD reaches out to the community, CPD spokeswoman Latisha Stroer said.
"Two weeks ago, we met with community leaders from (central Columbia) about how to get parents involved," Stroer said. "It's got to be a community effort to try to curb the violence that's occurring."
Nationwide, drug-related conflict remains the No. 1 factor in all gang violence, according to the 2009 National Youth Gang Survey. Almost all local gangs, which tend to have between 10 and 30 members, focus on drug dealing, Stroer said.
"In other areas, it's more about territory," she said. "Here, gangs want to monopolize the drug sales."
One major difference between gangs of the past and modern-day gangs is the use of firearms, according to the National Gang Center website.. The availability of guns is a major concern, said Clark Peters, assistant professor in the School of Social Work.
"Young people have been getting into skirmishes and fights for as long as young people have been on the planet," Peters said. "The big reason for concern is that now these individuals are more likely to have guns."
Research shows youth gangs arise primarily in areas where making the transition to adult identities is difficult, Peters said. Gangs can provide an identity these adolescents can't find in education or the labor market.
YEZ, which was founded in 2004, initially set out to curb the labor market problem, Lawson said. He found the No. 1 complaint from local youth was the inability to find jobs, so YEZ found jobs for more than 40 local adolescents. Later on, Lawson found out more than 80 percent of them did not hold the job for a month.
"We had to start focusing on more than just getting the jobs," Lawson said. "We want to prepare them to get and keep the jobs and give them the life skills to succeed. We intervene in different situations, hook them up with positive peers and mentors, help them find jobs and get back into education. Things like that combat the pull of being in a gang and being involved with criminal activity."
YEZ's approach to gang activity creates a meaningful place to go for people who don't have other options, Peters said.
"One response we've finally realized doesn't work is to lock up every offender in this age group," Peters said. "Municipalities are starting to think creatively about how else we can address this issue beyond simplistic punitive measures."