Originally created 10/15/06

Aiken County sees escalation in gang activity



More police in South Carolina's rural counties are finding themselves fighting what used to be a metropolitan problem - gangs.

Aiken County has its share of gang activity, said Capt. Wendell Hall, of the Aiken Department of Public Safety.

Unlike the violence Richmond County authorities are witnessing, police haven't had to deal with much more than a handful of confrontations and minor crimes.

"We're not as big a city," Capt. Hall said. "Bigger cities have bigger problems sometimes."

A study recently released by the University of South Carolina found that gang activity is increasing in the state's rural counties, following the national trends.

Researchers from the university used responses from 174 law enforcement agencies in South Carolina for the study, finding that 52 percent of the agencies had gangs in their areas.

Thirty-seven percent of the agencies serving communities with 10,000 people or less had gang activity, the survey states.

The highest rates of gang activity were in the Midlands and Pee Dee areas, with more than 60 percent reporting gang activity.

The Upstate had the lowest reported rates of South Carolina's four regions, but even then, 38 percent of the law agencies there said gangs were at work.

Capt. Hall said he wasn't surprised by any of the study's findings. Nor is he surprised by the concern the Richmond County Sheriff's Office has for the gangs in its jurisdiction.

"They're obviously there. I think the quicker you recognize that and take pro-active steps, the safer your community will be," he said.

Aiken authorities have reacted.

Authorities said they were reluctant to label any group a "gang" because it only would empower the gang members.

But gang activity definitely has become a worry for local police.

In recent months, investigators have noticed increased levels of organization and recruitment.

The actual number of gangs in Aiken County has not been determined, but police say there are at least seven, either branches of nationally recognized groups that began in places such as Los Angeles, or are just using their names.

They call themselves the Bloods, Crips, Folks and Latin Kings, and they've been tagging the sides of buildings and street signs, officials said.

Capt. Hall stressed that it's not illegal to be a member of a gang, and the only ones the police are interested in are the ones committing crimes.

A handful of incidents have drawn concern, he said. A brick was thrown through a window, and one house was shot into.

"When they start bringing it home, that's not petty any longer," he said.

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 111, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.