Nearly 400 law enforcement officers from across South Carolina are meeting in Orangeburg for a three-day conference focused on stopping gang crime in the state. “I think that we still have a real problem with gangs in South Carolina,” says State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are nearly 28,000 gangs in the U.S. with more than 700,000 members.
At the conference, law enforcement officers are talking about initiatives that are already working and how to expand those.
Chief Keel says police can’t arrest their out of the gang problem, though. “We have to offer opportunities to young people, and we have to have their families involved. We have to have the community involved in offering other opportunities than, again, for folks to stand on the street corner, for them to be, for gangs to be glamorized as the only way you can be successful, the only way you can get ahead is to be a member of a gang.”
He says he’s often asked whether having school resource officers in elementary schools really makes a difference. He says it does. “I want to see law enforcement not seen as a problem with our young people but I want to see law enforcement there mentoring young people and getting them at the earliest age, because I think that’s where we have the biggest impact.
State Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling says one reason just arresting gang members doesn’t help much is because they continue to commit more crimes while they’re in prison. “They can make payments with green dot cards,” he says. “They have other methods to make payments, so if they have access to a cell phone, they can continue their gang activity from behind bars. They can organize outside. So it is a public safety hazard that we take very seriously.”
He says his agency is focusing on rehabilitating inmates, not just warehousing them. “I think we’ve seen that just locking people up and throwing away the key, 90 percent of the people get out within five years, so they’re going to be back out in society. So we have a choice, whether we want to give them the skills to be successful, or whether we want to just lock them up and have them come back in a couple of years.”