The City of Aiken knew in January that it had a problem.
Two Public Safety officers – Scotty Richardson and Sandy Rogers – had been shot and killed in a little over a month. At a Food for Thought event in the spring, more than 300 people showed up to Eustis Park, where Rogers was killed.
“They all said the same thing,” City Manager Richard Pearce recalled. “Tell us how we can help. What can we do to take our community back?”
They may have gotten their answer on Thursday at the H. Odell Weeks Activities Center, where more than 100 people crowded into a room to hear about and offer input on “Safer Communities,” an initiative in which law enforcement agencies and community members work together to reduce crime.
A second meeting was also held Thursday evening at Friendship Baptist Church.
Community members and law enforcement officials from High Point, N.C., where the initiative has been implemented since 1997, said the project is not about locking up offenders, but getting them back on the right track.
Chronic violent offenders are identified by their present and past criminal activities and brought to a meeting with law enforcement officials and community members. They’re told the effects of the crimes they’re committing and are given the penalties they face if they commit another crime.
The communities – including non-profit organizations, faith groups, service providers and citizens – offer opportunities to the offenders to help them pursue a different, more productive path, with opportunities varying from getting training for a job to getting an education.
“It’s not a program, it’s not a grant. Those things start and stop,” High Point police Chief Marty Sumner said, adding that “Safer Communities” is more of a “philosophical shift.”
Gretta Bush is president of the High Point Community Against Violence, a nonprofit dedicated to lowering crime in High Point.
“We tell our clients that you can either be dead, in jail or doing right,” she said. “We do not hold their hands, we don’t babysit them.”
Offenders who commit another crime face the state solicitor and a U.S. attorney, who can seek the maximum penalties allowed by law.
Sumner said the city, once known as “Little Chicago,” saw a 54 percent decrease in its violent crime rate since 1990, while the population rose from 75,000 to 107,000.
The initiative is centered on research that says a small percentage of individuals are responsible for a bulk of the crimes being committed.
The meetings are held at the city hall quarterly, sometimes more frequently. Offenders are brought into the meetings in groups of 20 or less.
Sumner said more than 1,000 people in High Point have been brought in to “hear the message,” and less than 10 percent have committed a violent crime again.
“There is no profiling,” Sumner said. “You are being identified based on your past conviction. We’re not speculating on what you might do; this is a matter of fact, what you’ve been involved in. We’re trying to call your attention to the path you’re on.”
All the speakers from High Point and the Aiken Department of Public Safety emphasized that the initiative is a “marriage” of law enforcement and community, and that the two must work together for it to be successful.
“We’re at the ground level, but I do feel confident and I know this community,” Chief Charles Barranco of the Aiken Department of Public Safety said. “Time and time again, they’ve stepped up for support and initiatives. I feel the energy building for ‘Safer Communities.’”
Based on reactions from audience members on Thursday, the community is ready to work.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing,” said Deryal Franklin, who read about the initiative in the newspaper and decided to learn more about it. “I don’t know what else we can do, but I hope the Aiken County Sheriff’s Department is gonna do the same thing the City of Aiken is, and I hope the community supports what they’re trying to do.”
Alexis Williams, a prevention specialist with the Aiken Center for Alcohol and Drug Services, said representatives from her office and the Safe City Coalition of Aiken came to learn more about getting on board with the project.
“We more than likely will get involved,” she said. “As long as the community is on board, I believe it will be effective and the plan will work.”
The project is still in its “ground level” phase. Community members on Thursday completed surveys to provide their feedback and request more information about how organizations can become partners and volunteer opportunities for individuals. Public Safety will evaluate the feedback and take their plan to the City Council for consideration.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.