A Chronicle headline last Saturday read, "Juvenile crimes growing violent, chief deputy says." The rest of the story, which deserves far more emphasis, is the emergence of deadly local gangs -- some with with national ties -- right under our noses.
On Feb. 4, three teen gangmembers were charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault in connection with a Tobacco Road robbery. Last week, another gang member was charged with an armed bank robbery.
The Richmond County Sheriff's Department has previously downplayed the emergence of gangs. Is Ronnie Strength now changing his mind? "We have intelligence on 10 to 12 groups throughout the county that call themselves gangs," the chief deputy admits.
In Columbia County, there is heightened concern about young gang members -- ranging from low-income high school dropouts to the dysfunctional kids of wealthy suburbanites.
Columbia Deputy William Cooper III has uncovered "proud" members ranging from the notorious Crips to more recent arrivals from the most vicious Hispanic gangs of the Southwest.
Cooper took a random sampling of 20 teens out of a larger group of 65 who were identified and interviewed between January 1995 and last month. The average age is 15.9 years -- and half of the members in his study were linked to a crime involving a firearm. Significantly, the Columbia deputy found 85 percent are high school dropouts.
While Strength feels Augusta's juvenile criminals don't have ties to national crime syndicates such as the Crips or the Bloods, Cooper's study paints a different picture. He has identified 10 area gangs (among them Bloods, Crips and La Familia) which know no county boundaries. Drug trafficking is their primary endeavor, but "initiations" often involve how well inductees perform armed robberies.
Columbia Sheriff Clay Whittle is so concerned that he wants to initiate a Juvenile Investigation and Crime Abatement Unit. An officer in this unit would require special skills, not only when confronting gangs but in working with parents and schools. "Perhaps with intervention in the lives of these youth," Cooper says, "they could have been productive members of society."
He worries that parents often don't recognize gang activity by their "normal" son. Cooper says all too many youths leave the house with their school clothes only to later change into special clothing and tennis shoes, and "colors." Weird tatoos and scrawlings (especially in school notebooks or on buildings) are tell-tale signs.
With large numbers of adolescents now the most crime-prone segment of the population, it's time that the Richmond, Columbia and Aiken county sheriffs expand their current tri-county cooperation pact to include more intelligence-gathering and coordination to stamp out gang activity. It is a growing cancer that cannot be left unchecked.