Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin has issued a warning to anyone affiliated with gangs in the city. "If you're in a gang in Columbia, we know who you are. We know where you are. And we will get you," he wrote in a tweet Monday morning shortly after appearing at a news conference to discuss the area's recent uptick in gang activity.
Benjamin, along with Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with community and church leaders at St. Anna's Park to discuss how the city can stop gangs.
Santiago has planned a series of educational public meetings over the next few weeks to help people recognize the signs of gang activity.
Benjamin spoke of the law enforcement progress that has been made in the city, citing crime statistics in the first half of 2013 which indicate most violent crime is down. "As proud as we are of the progress that's been made, we know there's much more that needs to be done," said Benjamin. "We know the best statistics in the world don't matter in the least if you don't feel safe in your own home."
"When we're talking about gang violence, we're not talking about just a group of wayward kids," said Benjamin. "We're talking about dangerous criminal behavior that has no place in our city."
"If you can hear my voice and you're in a gang, we want to tell you to get out of the gangs now," said Benjamin. "We know who you are, we know where you are and we're gonna be focused on making sure we end gang presence in the city of Columbia. The city's had enough and we want to focus intently on ending this nonsense."
Faith leaders reinforced the need for early intervention, saying the police can only do so much.
Rev. Anthony Dicks of Friendship Baptist Church says he's encouraged by the effort he's seeing.
"It's disappointing that we've got any child that has lost their life, you heard the mayor talk about the diminishing numbers of crimes in our city, but until it's zero, we haven't done everything we can do, and that's the way we feel about it," said Dicks.
Dicks says outreach into communities and into the hearts of young folks has only gotten more difficult in the past few years.
"They're distracted from school activities, things that are structured to channel their minds, so there are a lot more distractions now, which makes things even more challenging," said Dicks.
Columbia and surrounding Richland County has seen several high-profile gang crimes this summer. A bakery worker was killed by gang members, a man was killed at an apartment complex during a gang fight, and a 4-year-old girl was critically injured when she was hit by a stray bullet fired during a shootout between gang members.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says a crackdown on gangs is needed immediately before there is more violence.
Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.