It was a gathering rarely seen by even the most seasoned law enforcement officers.
Representatives from local agencies like the Aiken Department of Public Safety, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office and Jackson Police Department, state agencies such as the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division and federal agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration all joined forces along with members of the Aiken community.
They all came together on Thursday for the first notification and call-in process for the Safe Communities initiative. As part of the initiative, chronic violent offenders are identified based on their present and past criminal activities, and brought to the call-in with law enforcement officials and community members. They’re told the effects of the crimes they’re committing and that they face stiffer penalties and an expedited trial if they re-offend.
Communities, including nonprofit organizations, faith groups, service providers and citizens, offer opportunities for the offenders to pursue a more productive path, from getting a job to getting an education.
The initiative was first implemented in High Point, N.C., which saw a 54 percent decrease in its violent crime rate since 1990, while the population rose from 75,000 to 107,000.
“There’s no reason at all tonight that you can’t say, ‘I’m done with this,’” Shelby Saunders, spokesman for Aiken Safe Communities Action Team, told the group of 13 offenders.
ASCAT is part of an effort with Aiken Public Safety and other law enforcement agencies to help promote Safe Communities in Aiken.
“We want you to listen closely, because there’s going to be a clear message that you’ll hear over and over again tonight,” said Charles Barranco, director of Aiken Public Safety, adding that the goal of Thursday’s meeting was “two-fold.”
“First, to put you on official notice that this community has decided that violence will not be tolerate in Aiken, which means no guns, no drugs, no drug dealing and no violence of any kind,” he said. “Two, to inform you that if you insist on continuing any violent behavior after tonight, we will use all of our resources to put you in prison to keep our streets safe.”
Several community members made short statements to the offenders who were invited to the call-in and came on their own.
“You can’t change your past – it’s already happened,” said Sharon Rodgers, president of United Way of Aiken County. “But you can change your future. You can make good choices. We hope you will decided to make those good choices, and we’re here to help you.”
One by one, representatives from each of the law enforcement agencies present made their own statements to the offenders. Each one also thanked them for coming to the meeting voluntarily.
“You’ve already made some bad choices in your life, but you’ve got the opportunity to make some good choices,” said Ben Thomas, assistant chief of SLED. “If you make the bad choices and re-offend, I want you to know that I will do all I can to bring every resource available to the State Law Enforcement Division here to Aiken to hunt you down, track you wherever you may be hiding, take you into custody and bring you before the justice system.”
Stacey Haynes, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told the group that their status as convicted felons means they’ll face stiffer penalties for future crimes.
“One bullet is the same as a gun in the federal system,” she said. “Because you’re felons, you’re looking at up to 10 years. A couple of you guys are looking at a mandatory 15 years for a bullet or gun, and possibly a life sentence. Think about that – 15 to life for a gun or ammo.”
Haynes told the offenders that federal inmates are often housed in other parts of the country.
“Mandatory life – that’s forever,” she said. “That means you leave the federal prison in a pine box. You don’t want that, your families don’t want that and we don’t want that for you. But we’ll do it if you continue the violence in Aiken.”
Solicitor J. Strom Thurmond Jr. said his office works frequently with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“We’ll go through your record, and what charges we can prove in either state or federal court, and we’re going to select the venue that carries the most serious penalties,” Thurmond said. “You’re not going to get a plea bargain, you’re not going to get a deal and we’re going to fast-track your case for trial.
“I have, at any given time 3,000 pending cases in Aiken County,” he said. “But you’re going to be No. 1 up for trial if you re-offend after you leave here tonight.”
Barranco told the group at the end that the community is extending a helping hand to them.
“We, as a community, are reaching out to you tonight to offer you an opportunity to change your situation,” he said. “You can accept the help or continue your violent behavior to be dealt with by this task force that is assembled before you.
“This is your last chance to make different choices,” he said.
Saunders said afterward that he was pleased with the meeting and how the offenders responded.
“Those young men were attentive. They understood what was being said,” Saunders said. “We had a young man at the very end. He stopped and asked, ‘What time can I call in the morning?’ He was already ready to reach out for a resource and that’s critical.”
Saunders said the offenders were invited after officers looked at their files and records.
“There were no faces or names. They were just a number,” he said.
He said after the meeting that “the ball’s in their court,” adding that the individuals called to Thursday’s meeting were given a brochure with resources and a card.
“They will call us,” he said. “We will set up a time, sit down with them one-on-one and do a needs assessment to find out what they need. We will try to match them to the resources that we have in order to help them help themselves.”
Barranco, too, felt the message was well-received.
“There was a consistent message that we’re tired of the violence here in Aiken,” he said after the meeting. “We’re not going to tolerate it anymore. They have the opportunity to make some healthy choices, and I think some of them will take advantage of that.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Clemson University and hails from Williston.