Columbia police and partners give felons a choice

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Thursday evening, inside the Eau Claire Print Building in Columbia, the wall art was striking. More than ten mugshots were posted throughout the room. Underneath the jail pictures, the names of the suspects and the lengthy sentences they could face.

"If you look at some of these pictures that are on the wall, that's some people that fell on that exact same category that you guys and girls are," said Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook to the roughly 50 people sitting quietly in the room, surrounded by the mugshots.

Holbrook wanted those men and women to see them, because they are felons. Three rows of them, some young and others old, faced a panel comprised of law enforcement, neighbors, and social workers.

The panelists all delivered a similar message to the felons: enough is enough.

"You all have been identified as those most likely to be a victim of a violent crime or commit a violent crime," said Holbrook.

"You're on the radar, and all I'm asking you to do is just start with not owning a gun," added U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles.

The dozens of offenders are the inaugural members of a new program called CeaseFire Columbia. The program is devised from a law enforcement strategy crafted by a Harvard professor more than a decade ago. Most notably, the strategy of intervention has been adopted in High Point, North Carolina. Since then, after the success of decreasing violent crime there, multiple departments in South Carolina have signed on, including Aiken, Greenville, and Conway.

Now, Columbia is giving it a try. The fifty offenders were selected from the city's 29203 zip code. Last year, the Columbia Police Department received over 1,400 calls of shots fired of which there were 118 confirmed victims shot.

"Very rarely in my 28 year career have we gone out to the people we're looking at and warned them on the front-end," warned the man in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) for South Carolina.

"The reason why we're here tonight is because we're running out of mercy," added Assistant Special Agent in Charge Robert Brown of the FBI's Columbia Division.

As Nettles explained, if the men and women in the room reoffend violently, especially with a firearm, they'll face fast-tracked federal charges and stricter federal sentences, if convicted. Nettles warned the felons from owning, touching, or even being near a gun or round of ammunition.

"If they get called to the house where you are and there's a gun, if they find a single bullet anywhere near you, it's not going to be a state charge. It's going to be a federal charge," the prosecutor warned.

However, the intervention program isn't completely ruthless.

"Now, you may not believe it or think it, but we're actually here to help you tonight. We're here to help you make a good decision," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the felons.

"You are struggling. We know that. We will work with you. But I can't help you if you go out and commit violent crime," added Jerry Adger, the Director of the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Community members sat beside the lawmen and offered job assistance, help with drug problems, and words of encouragement too.

"We cannot succeed with the goals of the people who live here unless you become partners with us," City Councilman Sam Davis said.

Sabrina Odom is one of other community partners teaming up with law enforcement for change.

"Do it for the children. Do it for the future. Do it for the kids that are coming up. Do it for the senior citizens who have lived here so long," Odom told the offenders.

She said she sometimes questions her safety, even at home in her North Columbia neighborhood.

"Who is not sick of the gun violence," she said.

Another partner who talked to the offenders, Roberta McKelvin, whose son was shot and killed back in 2013.

"I can't eat this. I can't eat that, because I think of my son, Nate. A young guy. 21. Just had got his CDL license," said McKelvin.

McKelvin's comments were just a small portion of the almost one-and-a-half-hours of powerful messages that could play a part in reducing violent crime in Columbia.

Chief Holbrook said CPD will look to continue and expand the program depending on results.

Holbrook said he does expect some notified Thursday night will reoffend, but he said it'll be law enforcement's job to follow through and make an example out of those repeat offenders who were clearly warned.

WIS talked to one offenders who said he left a changed man and called it a "fresh cup of coffee." He said he has no plans to touch a gun and said he will heed to the very serious warning dished out in the program.

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