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FEATURE ‌ Crime Stopper?

East Side struggles to stem drug trade

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Charleston city councilman Robert Mitchell is working with other local officials to put an end to the gang and drug problems on the east side
  • Charleston city councilman Robert Mitchell is working with other local officials to put an end to the gang and drug problems on the east side

As fatalities mount across Charleston's East Side, the community is heading in several directions to come to the same conclusion — an end to the area's gang members and drug dealers, considered responsible for most of the violence in the community.

Police will be moving a substation into the neighborhood, residents are ready to take to the streets in citizen patrols, city councilmen are planning to strengthen loitering laws, and all are clamoring for more educational and job opportunities.

"We've got to keep trying different things and see what solutions we come up with," says Robert Mitchell, who represents the East Side on City Council.

Next month, the Charleston City Police are expected to open the substation in a home within the neighborhood, as opposed to business offices that usually house substations, says spokesman Charles Francis.

"When we can have it in the neighborhood, it's a good thing," he says.

Soon after the substation plans were announced in August, the building at 1 Sheppard St. was fire bombed, but the police remain undeterred.

"The criminals don't want us there, but that's why we're going there," Frazier says.

Community members are expected to meet soon to work out the details of a citizen patrol for the community. It will be largely based on a program used in Liberty Hill in North Charleston to combat that community's drug problem. The patrols, from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., will be coordinated by local elected officials, including Mitchell and County Councilman Henry Darby. They're hopeful that up to 100 men will volunteer and they received a strong response from a community meeting last week, where the patrol was first suggested.

"It's based on whether the citizens of the East Side are ready to assist," Darby says.

The goal of the Liberty Hill group was to target the weakest link in the drug supply chain — the buyer, says organizer Odell Price.

"Our strategy was not to be confrontational with the dealers," he says.

The police department helped out by providing T-shirts and walkie-talkies for the patrols. The volunteers walked through the area on foot, talking to people they would see in areas prone to drug deals. Talking to these men face-to-face will reach them in a way that not many people have tried, says Sen. Robert Ford (D-Charleston).

"You talk to them and they're going to respect you," he says.

The group also would take down license plate numbers and send a postcard to vehicle owners letting them know they'd been spotted in the area and that their names and tags had been provided to the police.

The faith community should also embrace the young men who feel compelled to be on the streets, says Minister Dennis Muhammad of the Nation of Islam Muhammad Mosque in North Charleston.

"They find a better brother in the streets than they do in their family and in their church," he says.

The City Council is also expected to consider a strengthened anti-loitering ordinance that would attempt to keep people off the streets that don't belong there, including a penalty of up to 30 days in jail. Council members introduced the proposed change in August after the existing ordinance was deemed unenforceable because of court challenges.

"You have to make it so that it can stand up in court," Mitchell says.

Expanding educational opportunities will also be important. Trident Technical College will begin renovations in November for its Palmer Campus in the East Side that houses tourism and culinary arts programs, and Mitchell says he's working with South Carolina State University to develop trade schools in the community.

"It's about giving them an alternative," Mitchell says of gang members.

Community members have asked the school board to bring back vocational opportunities for students, and school board Chairwoman Nancy Cook seems receptive to the suggestion.

"When we got away from vocational education, we were limiting opportunities," she says.

Between 300 and 500 jobs will have to follow these opportunities, Darby says.

"I don't think it will work if the jobs can't be created."

Though past crime-prevention initiatives have fallen by the wayside as attention fades, officials pleaded with residents last week to stay involved and make change.

"Israel went to war over two soldiers. We lose three brothers in a week," Darby says. "When are we going to go to war? The time has come."

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