Gangs are a serious problem negatively impacting American culture. And the rise of gang activity as evidenced by the rash of shootings we’ve seen in major metropolitan areas like Chicago and elsewhere is increasingly threatening the very safety and security of both law enforcement officers and the communities we serve, nationwide.
Every American community in 2018, it seems, is somehow threatened by gang violence.
Richland County, South Carolina—a vast metropolitan area covering 756 square miles and home to Columbia, the capital city, several colleges and universities, the nation’s largest military basic-training base, and a population of well-over 401,000—is no exception.
The difference is our ‘two-fold approach’ to gangs.
We have a gang presence here—as do all major urban and metropolitan regions of the country—but Richland County is simply not conducive to gangs or gang activity.
First of all, as a matter of policy, we do not mention specific gangs by name, nor what gang may be located in Richland County at any point in time. We give gangs and gang members no functional notoriety whatsoever.
I will, however, make an exception with MS-13, the largely West Coast and Central American based gang that has been the subject of countless national news stories over the previous decade.
It was about 10 years ago, that MS-13 attempted to make inroads into South Carolina, specifically Richland County. But they quickly discovered their attempt at establishing a foothold here did not work. Nor will it ever work. The reason being our aforementioned two-fold approach to gangs: Education and enforcement.
Both education and enforcement are given equal weight. Too many law enforcement agencies, I believe, focus too much on one, or the other. We put as much emphasis on education—which includes constant community outreach and teaching—as we do law enforcement.
In the case of MS-13, they attempted to move into Richland County, an area with a large Hispanic community with whom we had already established deep ties and an unwavering relationship.
We have many Hispanic officers, both patrol deputies and supervisors, who speak Spanish. These officers spend a lot of time in the communities we all serve. We don’t wait for the community leadership to come to us. We go to them. We engage in family fun activities with them, as well as school functions and business meetings. Our department hosts Hispanic radio shows. We go to church with our Hispanic neighbors.
Members of the Hispanic community have come to know that when they have issues—when they report crimes—the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is going to do something about it immediately. We are their friends. They are ours. And my saying so is not some feel-good platitude. It’s true.
For many members of the Hispanic communities, that has not always been their experience.
Consequently, they have not always trusted law enforcement. Here they trust us, because they have with us—and we with them—an abiding respect and friendship.
Ten years later, MS-13, which had a presence in Charlotte, (NC)—which is about an hour-and-a-half away—wanted to expand their territory into Columbia. When they tried, they ran into us—that ‘us’ being both the community and law enforcement.
For MS-13 to operate effectively, they have to move into an area where people will look the other way at their criminal activities and otherwise refuse ‘to tell on them.’
The communities gave us great information which we processed into good finished intelligence. We responded quickly to every piece of information, and we eliminated the problem before it could establish itself.
Another key component of the education piece is teaching young people about the destructive nature of gang activity and teaching parents how to impress this reality on their children.
Gangs are a result of young people not having parental guidance all the time, and not being involved in positive activities. Children want to be loved and have someone spend time with them. If they don’t get a sense that they are valued at home, they will search for it elsewhere. And gangs will only lead to prison or the graveyard.
Sheriff Leon Lott leads the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in S.C., and one of six regularly featured LE agencies on A&E’s top-rated TV series, LIVE PD. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq—at the invitation of the Iraqi government—to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.
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