Police see change in criminals

Things aren't what they used to be.

When Richard Weaver was a young police officer on the beat in the early 1970s, he could go days without receiving an emergency call. Now the sheriff's office receives thousands daily, Maj. Weaver said.

"Some of these guys handle as many calls in one night as we would handle in a week, depending on where you were riding," he said. "Back then you could go all night long without getting a call."

Times and crimes have changed in Richmond County. In the past 30 years, the department's old hands say, everything from the use of drugs to the number of beats has grown by leaps and bounds.

The department has grown, too. Before the city and county consolidated in the mid-1990s, the sheriff's office and police department each had a few hundred employees. As of last week, the sheriff's office had 734 positions.

Maj. Weaver remembers when the city and county boundaries weren't the only dividing line. When he started, black deputies typically stuck to the black areas of town, and the white deputies stuck to white neighborhoods.

"It was pretty much segregated," he said. "I guess it was around '72 that they began to integrate them."

Maj. Gene Johnson started in law enforcement in 1965. In those days, heroin was big on the street, he said. Not so much anymore. He has watched the rise of crack cocaine and, more recently, illegal prescription drug use and is surprised by how it has affected all types of crime -- from burglaries to homicides.

"It's really gotten more heavy in the last 20 years and still increasing," said Maj. Johnson, who oversees the Richmond County jail. "Car break-ins, business break-ins, stealing copper, they'll do anything to get money."

And they're doing it while carrying more weapons, said Maj. Ken Autry, who started with the department in 1977. He spent years in the narcotics division, and now, as the head of the Criminal Investigation Division, he said he's surprised by the proliferation of weapons in the hands of criminals -- particularly drug dealers.

"Twenty to 25 years ago, when we were doing raids, it was rare that we ever found a gun in a house that we raided for drugs," said Maj. Autry, who blames the increase on gangs. "It was even rarer to find them on a traffic stop. Now it's commonplace to find one."

Last year, Maj. Autry helped spearhead the department's undercover-weapons seizure called Operation Augusta Ink. In that raid, the second-largest storefront weapon seizure in the history of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, about 400 guns were taken. The success of the operation and the number of weapons seized surprised many involved. So were the ages of many of those arrested.

Many were teenagers. Many more were juveniles.

The influence of gangs has made criminals out of children, Maj. Autry said. He points to a recent killing on Royal Street in which a 20-year-old man was shot to death by two 16-year-olds who broke into his home.

"In every category of crime you see juveniles being involved more now than you did 20 years ago," he said.

Sgt. Ray Hardin, a 31-year veteran of the department, also worked in narcotics. He doesn't remember dope dealers being armed to the degree they are today, but to him the number of teenagers being arrested is the most noticeable change in crime over the past 30 years.

"We never had 17-, 18- or 15-year-old children shooting each other for nothing," he said.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons pointed to the spread of gang activity into rural communities. She said that in the past decade gangs have become more organized and criminally minded, creating a ripple effect of murders, robberies and illegal drug activities across the state.

"It's not focused on one particular area or one city," she said. "It could happen in Allendale, where it's mostly rural, or in Richland County, where the gang population is pretty significant and serious. It's not just bigger cities anymore, which is where you would have found them several years ago."

South Carolina reflects the national trend that saw violent crime decline by 50 percent since the mid-1980s and level out in the past three years, according to Michael R. Smith, a former police officer and head of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of South Carolina.

Still, he said, the state has among the highest violent crime rates in the nation, with long-standing high rates in North Charleston, Orangeburg and Florence.

What's different now, he said, is that gang activity is spreading to midsize cities and rural areas.

"These are kids who are copying the gang culture that they see and read about on the Internet and through music," he said.

Mr. Smith noted that immigration is a factor in the changing gang landscape.

"As the Hispanic population in the U.S. increases, MS-13 is following suit, as far as gaining footholds in areas that it might not otherwise have been in," he said, referring to the gang made up of mostly Salvadoran nationals or first generation Salvadoran-Americans and immigrants from Central and South America. "That's true in South Carolina and probably true in Georgia, as well."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

FBI CRIME STATISTICS

  1976 2006
Motor vehicle theft 210 1,860
Murder 23 18
Robbery 134 623
Burglary 1,421 2,890

In 1976, the oldest statistics it has available, the FBI collected numbers from the city of Augusta, which then had its own police department.

In 2006, the latest year available, the FBI provided countywide data from Richmond County.

Source: FBI