Violent crime in Charleston has skyrocketed in the past few months. More homicides have been committed in the first half of 2006 than in the entirety of any other year for over a decade — 13 as of August 6. Gun crimes this year total more than 700, and nearly every evening the television news is littered with reports of theft and violence. Car chases and gun shots on the Battery, stabbings in West Ashley, caches of weapons discovered, and sexual assaults and slayings in public parks, and five shootings in three days last week are just a few of the most recent incidents.
What has happened in Charleston is happening across the country. In June, the FBI reported that in 2005, violent crime in the U.S. posted its biggest one-year increase since 1991. Why isn't our sleepy Southern town immune from what's primarily considered a big city phenomena?
"Why is it happening? Well, why not? Most of them don't go to jail," says outgoing police Chief Ned Hethington. "It's hard to stop murder. It's one of those things you can't really do that much about."
Hethington argues that with a lack of a strong deterrent provided by Charleston courts, violent crime rates will continue to rise. "Twelve murders is a fact, not a perception, and it is the worst in a number of years, but innocents aren't involved," says the chief. "These guys are shooting each other over guns and stuff. The same guys are dealing drugs. And they are usually out on bond or probation for outstanding charges. I'm arresting these people over and over and over and they aren't in jail where I put them. The courts need to help us out and put people away."
"The courts are the problem," agrees Sgt. Debbie Fritts of the Career Criminal Tracking Unit. "They don't hold anyone responsible."
Sergeant Fritts is responsible for tracking offenders through the system. Based on her 18 years of experience, she estimates 98 percent of those convicted of crimes will offend again. She cites problems with the court system and loose probation guidelines as the primary cause of this extremely high recidivism rate.
"Probation agents are overwhelmed. There are nearly 150 cases per agent. And there is no immediacy to the process. It can take from 18 to 24 months just for a case to come before a judge. That entire time the criminal is out on the street free to do as they please," says Fritts. "When they do come before a judge they are not held accountable. Each case is taken in a vacuum, and if a judge is too strict, defense attorneys run them off."
Both Fritts and Hethington point to the recent dramatic events that took place on the Battery on July 18 as an example of the cycle of violence that the Charleston court system has contributed to. The two individuals who crashed into the Battery and were subsequently shot by the men chasing them were identified on a now-infamous DVD depicting Charleston youths with guns and drugs. "The guys shot at on the Battery have significant arrest histories and refuse to cooperate with the authorities," says Sgt. Fritts. "We've identified in excess of 25 people on the DVD who have been through the system."
According to Fritts, as of 2005, five of the individuals identified were out on parole, 12 were in custody at the time of the video, and outstanding warrants were found on 15. The charges against those in the video include various assault, gun, and drug charges.
"The two DVD guys, they're out now," says Hethington. "These guys are pretty bad dudes. They wouldn't give up the names of the guys shooting at them. Those guys will go get their guns and settle that score themselves."
If what Hethington and Fritts say is true — that Charleston's rising crime rates are the result of a number of career criminals working the court system and perpetrating violence on each other — then are we dealing with a gang problem? Hethington insists that isn't the case.
"These are very loose confederates," says Hethington. "They deal drugs, they get along, they don't get along, and they are shooting at each other, but they are not organized."
According to Lt. James Doyle, a detective for the Charleston Police Department, the state law enforcement definition of a gang is "the assembly of more than three individuals that come together for a criminal purpose" — sounds like our problem. But the lieutenant goes on to say that the group has to have a leadership cadre.
"There is a certain macho thrill and an adrenaline rush to the life," says Hethington. "That is what they are attracted to. And once you get into that kind of life you can't get out of it."
Getting out is made all the more difficult when the public opinion and the media coverage characterize the violence as occuring only on the East Side. Which may, or may not, be a misrepresentation.
"It is unfair for people to assume East Side this and that. We don't have gangs like Bloods and Crips here. We have associates that may have a common interest in the drug trade," says Chief Hethington. "Too often people are quick to say violence is on the East Side. It isn't fair to think that all crime in Charleston occurs in that neighborhood. More gun arrests occur West of the Ashley. If we measure crime in what is historically considered the East Side, crime is very low."
So far this year, gun crimes on the East Side total 253. In West Ashley the total is 272. Of the city's homicides, none are reported to have occured in West Ashley, while eight are attributed to the East Side area.
The City hasn't turned a blind eye to the situation. "We did have a lot of extra gun play this year among these hoodlums and etcetera," says Hethington. "I talked to the mayor and that is when he came up with his plan."
Mayor Riley's plan, which was announced at the end of June, has a three-pronged approach. "Operation Cease Fire," a statewide initiative, has also been put on the police department's front burner. The program works with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to prosecute people for gun crimes. As of July, Charleston had convicted over 30 people in federal court with the help of Cease Fire.
In the City's program "Criminal + Gun = Jail," police will work more closely with prosecutors to win convictions in federal court, where the sentences are tougher.
"The system is complex," says Hethington. "It allows for long due process and review. All along the way there are opportunities for people to be pulled from the system. And these guys know how to work the system. Now we make sure the judges know they are the DVD guys, know when they are repeat offenders, and hopefully they are held accountable."
The Career Criminal Tracking Unit — where Sgt. Debbie Fritts works — is also a product of the Mayor's recent "get tough on crime" initiatives. The information collected by the unit is shared with prosecutors and judges in another effort to increase convictions with greater prison time.
Much of the success of these programs will depend on Charleston's new police chief, Greg Mullen. Mullen's appointment to Chief — a position that has been officially vacant since Chief Reuben Greenberg's retirement last fall, and unofficially covered by temporary Chief Hethington — was announced by Mayor Riley last Friday. The Mayor referred to the appointment as, "the most important personnel decision that I can make," saying that, "keeping our city safe is the first responsibility of government."
Chief Mullen is a 22-year veteran of Virginia Beach law enforcement, where he now serves as deputy chief. He will take over for Hethington on October 1. When asked what he plans to do to improve recidivism rates in Charleston the incoming chief said that he would want to increase cooperation with local and national agencies that monitor criminals after they are released. The goal being to use the data collected to encourage legislation that will allow courts to act tough.
If he decides to implement any of the tactics employed in Virginia Beach, Charleston is looking at a "Big Brother" style video surveillance system. When Virginia Beach installed the system in 2003 it was one of only two cities in the United States to employ the face-recognition technology.
Civil liberties groups are up in arms about the profiling technology and critics argue that the system is highly inaccurate and can be easily fooled. And who needs video surveillance when Charleston has its own homemade DVD filled with a laundry list of local thugs?
"The system doesn't look at skin color or your hair or your gender," said Mullen in an interview with Reuters news agency. "It takes human prejudices out of the equation."
The new Chief will have the opportunity to put his ideas into effect beginning on October 1. He has some mighty big shoes to fill. Former Chief Greenberg had been at the helm for 23 years and was a present and vital force in the local Charleston community.
"Greenberg would come out and meet with us," says Leonard Higgins Sr., a community leader from the Maryville neighborhood. "We need a Chief that will let you know, if you are out of line we are going to deal with it. Sometimes you've got to ignore some rules to get some things done."
Chief Greenberg developed a reputation for himself as a chief who was not above knocking a few heads if the occasion called for it. That kind of leadership might be exactly what Charleston needs right now to turn the tide of violence sweeping though the city. Whether Chief Mullen is the man to return that kind of discipline to the streets will bear out in the coming months.