According to the FBI, South Carolina has the dubious honor of having the highest violent crime rate in the nation. Meanwhile, North Charleston was ranked by city-and-state data publishing house Morgan Quitno Press as the 20th most dangerous city in America. Despite these statistics, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen says Holy City police are doing a good job of controlling crime here. And compared to this time last year, there have been decreases in violent crimes.
According to the Charleston Police Department, the number of homicides has dropped from 17 to 11 and aggravated assaults fell from 405 to 362. Rapes have increased slightly from 23 to 25.
"We've been trying to hit all the angles – meeting with community people and organizations, working closely with the courts to make sure those who are out of jail on bond, probation, or parole are not reoffending and engaging the criminal element as well," Mullen says.
The redeployment of officers from specialty units to street patrols has also made a considerable difference, the police chief says. The department is also deploying more horse and bike patrols. But Mullen says that Charleston residents shouldn't expect to see any more foot patrols.
According to retired Charleston Police Department Major Ligure Ellington, police are limited in their ability to prevent violent crimes — like homicide or rape — despite popular perceptions to the contrary. And Mullen agrees.
The chief also points out that the availability of guns, whether obtained legally or illegally, makes the jobs of officers that much harder. And despite a tougher new loitering ordinance passed by Charleston City Council last year, city police can't just roust those suspected of illegal drug trafficking simply because they are standing on a corner.
Some in the city's black communities say crime, particularly drug trafficking and the violence it brings, is ever-present. Of the 11 homicides in the city so far this year, nine victims have been black, police say, and the majority of those murders have been drug related.
Carolyn White, president of the East Side Neighborhood Development Corporation, says the predominately black community has long been a center for illegal drug trafficking and drug-related violence. "No one wants to live in a community where people are getting killed or where illegal drugs are being sold, but I know the police are working on it. There have been several drug sweeps in the past couple of weeks, and they seem to be having an impact," she said.
For many in predominantly white neighborhoods, property crimes are the main focus, says City Councilman Henry Fishburne, who represents Dist. 1, which encompasses most of the historic district south of Calhoun Street and Daniel Island. According to Fishburne, burglaries top the list of concerns.
"Most of my neighbors feel safe, but that depends on what time of day it is. The later it gets, I think the less safe people are going to feel. I think that's pretty much the case no matter where you live," says Fishburne, who admits he rarely walks his South Battery neighborhood in the afternoons.
Vangie Rainsford, president of the neighboring Garden District Neighborhood Association, says she's felt safe all 18 years she's lived in the largely white community. She thinks her neighbors share her sense of security judging from the stability of the neighborhood even though they are mere blocks away from drug trafficking in the East Side. Most Garden District residents have been there a long time, she adds.
According to Chief Mullen, if the city's violent crimes were centered in predominantly white communities, police tactics would not be more aggressive than police efforts in black neighborhoods. "If all the homicide victims this year were white, our response would be the same," he says.
What the city's 380 sworn officers really need, Mullen says, is more cooperation from those they protect. "We're trying to determine the trends and patterns and to respond to them," the chief says. "We can do all of that, but we still will get no better results without community cooperation."
West Side Neighborhood Association President Arthur Lawrence says crime and violence are definitely a problem in Charleston's black communities, but they are problems perpetuated by blacks themselves.
"Most of those committing the crime should be in someone's trade school or some other school," Lawrence says. "The data shows most of those guys have dropped out of high school. The public school system has failed them and destined them for a life of crime feeding one of the community's biggest businesses, the prison industry."
Lawrence adds, "The real crime in Charleston is a crime of failing to educate all our children."
Note: This article originally noted that rapes had dropped dramatically from 23 to 2. The information provided by the Charleston Police Department was incorrect.