Gangs of Columbia: Lott's Gang Unit battles groups in the underg - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

Gangs of Columbia: Lott's Gang Unit battles groups in the underground

Posted: Updated:
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

The Richland County Sheriff's Department Gang Unit was just awarded South Carolina's Gang Unit of the Year. It's a distinct honor that was awarded last month at the annual Gang Investigators Conference.

Law enforcement agencies from across the state attend the conference each year to learn about the current trends in gang activity.

So how bad is the gang problem in Richland County and what is the gang unit is doing to combat violence?

It starts, obviously, on the streets and in the community.

In one investigation where we followed along, deputies looked for a gang member and career criminal who was suspected of selling drugs and having illegal weapons. The Gang Unit thoroughly searched her Columbia apartment. She was not home, but her girlfriend was arrested.

Investigator Kelvin Griffin explained the situation to the woman.

"We bought drugs from this apartment. So, we're coming in this apartment. I'm giving you the opportunity to help yourself," said Griffin.

They searched every room, every cereal box, and even the cracks and compartments of cupboards and closets.

"With good information you'll find them right off hand," said Deputy Paul Melton. "It's hit or miss at times."

They even check the oven. After the thorough search, they find drugs and money -- more than a thousand dollars and some marijuana.

"Normally that's what you call re-up money. That's why they fold it the way they do. It's going to be a certain amount to re-up your drugs," explained Griffin.

There were no weapons and the suspect is no where to be found this time.  

"Even though we didn't get her tonight, we have enough to go after her another day," said Gang Unit supervisor Staff Sgt. Vince Goggins.

"A lot of times, it's just about getting that message that we're not going to tolerate what they're doing in the community."

Goggins' gang unit has been recognized statewide for its proactive tactics targeting gang activity.

Sheriff Leon Lott says even though he doesn't talk about gangs as much anymore, he says they are real and they are here but it's not how it once was in the county.

Lott says his gang unit has forced the culture underground. There is still criminal activity, but he says it's no longer "The Bloody South" as portrayed in the 2010 History Channel series Gangland.

"We still have our murders, our houses being broken into, but they're not gang-related," said Lott. "Ten years ago our murders were gang-related."

In the last 10 years, trends have changed. Nationally, gangs are growing in number. In Richland County, Goggins says they're using social media a lot, but they're loosely organized and not necessarily tied to traditional gangs anymore like the Bloods and Crips.

"One of the more recent trends we're dealing with is just street gangs based off the area where they're living," said Goggins.

There are also motorcycle gangs, prison gangs, and hate group gangs.

"A majority of our gangs are now just the common street thug that wants to be a part of something," said Goggins.

According to the FBI, there are more than 100 named gangs in SC. Since 2009, gang membership increased most significantly in the northeast and southeast, but their influence and activity varies.

The National Gang Intelligence Center in Washington, D.C. tracks trends, assesses the threat level and gathers resources to help local law enforcement. Diedre Butler is the director of that group.

"We have to be just as proactive in our methods and our efforts to combat this as they migrate across the country because our children are at risk," said Butler.

Lott agrees. He says the recruiters are moving into elementary schools for fresh members.

"They recruit them young and they suck them in," said Lott.

They are recruited young, but the life of a gang member isn't long, according to Goggins.

"They're either in prison or dead," said Goggins.

In prison, the gangs continue. Karen Hair, the chief of special investigations at the state Corrections Department, says prison perpetuates gang activity.

"It strains our system because those gangs are able to coordinate efforts and introduce contraband into the prisons," said Hair. "They have a networking society."

Sheriff Lott says gangs are in mostly every school and every subdivision. You can't stereotype where gangs live or what they look like. It's a changing, underground culture, but working with the community is one way the Gang Unit tries to combat the violence.

"We know how to fight the gangs: be a parent; be a family. Give these kids something to do," said Lott.

Wednesday night, we investigate more about the culture of gang life. You'll hear from a former gang member about why he made the decision to join a gang and why he chose to get out.

Be sure to tune in tonight to the News at 11 for part two in this series.

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.

Powered by WorldNow