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Case Study: Young People Curbing Gun Violence in Columbia, South Carolina

CREDIT: Hunter Newton on Unsplash

COLUMBIA CASE STUDY

Generation Progress is launching a series of case studies to explore how young people have been involved in local efforts that have successfully moved forward the dual priorities of gun violence prevention and criminal justice reform. Young people are the generation most impacted by gun violence. According to America’s Youth Under Fire, a 2018 joint report by Generation Progress and the Center for American Progress, gunfire has surpassed car accidents as a leading killer of young people in the United States. Young people understand that if we are to end the gun violence epidemic, we must place it in context with the criminal justice system and policing.

The first city that Generation Progress visited to explore the leadership of young people on these issues was Columbia, South Carolina. In Columbia, Generation Progress conducted interviews with local law enforcement, community members, activists, and elected officials, to understand how this southern city has become a leader in the fight to prevent gun violence, reform the criminal justice system, and transform police practices, all with the help of young people.

INTRODUCTION

Columbia, South Carolina is a model for youth-centered reforms, and why Generation Progress picked it as the first city to visit as part of our series. Columbia is a city that has established two community review boards for law enforcement, and the first city to ban the use of bump stocks, a firearm accessory that accelerates the rate-of-fire. Engaging young people was essential in the city’s criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention initiatives.

Through our #Fight4AFuture Gun Violence Prevention and Criminal Justice Reform network members, we learned of the bold steps that the city and county law enforcement agencies have been taking to create more responsive and transparent police departments. Although culturally and geographically a southern American city, Columbia shocked the country by passing a ban on the use of bump stocks. It’s believed that the city is the first, or one of the first, in the country to do so. In early July, Generation Progress visited Columbia, South Carolina to speak with those instrumental in the city’s reforms. Through conversations with Chief of Police William Holbrook, Deputy Chief M.J. Kelly, County Sheriff Leon Lott, and youth activist Tracey Tucker, we learned how this city was able to harness the power of young people to develop progressive criminal justice and gun control initiatives.

COMMUNITY REVIEW BOARDS

For years, young people horrified by the police brutality seen in cases across the country have been calling for greater transparency from our nation’s law enforcement. The calls from youth organizers, community leaders, and Black Lives Matter activists, have often gone unheard and police-community relationships have been hurt. In Columbia, the city and county police have incorporated many ideas with input from local youth organizers to create a police force that’s more open and accessible to the public. In Columbia young organizers were deeply involved in the establishment of two community review boards, one for the sheriff’s department, and one for the city police.

  • Sheriff Lott’s Citizens’ Advisory Council is comprised of 26 council members that represent the residents of Richland County. Service on the council is voluntary and members convene approximately four times per year, or as requested by the Sheriff. The Council has three main tasks. Their roles include reviewing complaints against Sheriff Department employees, reviewing disciplinary actions, and reviewing internal policies and procedures.
  • The ten members of the Columbia Police Department’s Community Advisory Council represent various stakeholders, the majority of which are appointed by the mayor and city council members. The Council provides oversight and recommendations to city police as well as citizen input in administrative cases.

While the idea of community councils is not new, Columbia has taken it a step further. Sheriff Lott has recently given his Citizens Advisory Council a say in the department’s hiring practices, ensuring that police officers hired by the department are vetted by the community members that they will police. This follows Sheriff Lott’s overhaul of professional standards and internal affairs unit that installed a discipline command review board. The department implemented body cameras that differ from those cameras found in other departments. While many body cameras require the officer to turn the device on, resulting in human error, the cameras worn by county police officers turn on automatically when a weapon is drawn. Eliminating the need to voluntarily turn on body cameras is a great move that will reduce human error, but there is room for improvement. There are other interactions that don’t involve weapons where body cameras can serve a useful purpose. Departments should consider more comprehensive uses of their body cameras, beyond situations involving deadly force. The city’s police department have followed many of Sheriff Lott’s reforms, including the creation of their own advisory council. Columbia police and the sheriff’s department have also joined in the chorus calling for sensible gun control measures by supporting a ban on bump stocks in the city. While the move is mostly symbolic and is a small step, it shows that police departments have a stake in the fight for gun violence prevention and have a unique voice that can help push the conversation forward.

GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION

While gun violence is a problem that disproportionally affects young people, the ramifications and effects of gun-related crimes affect entire communities. “We are on the receiving end, along with the families, of dealing and processing those crime scenes,” says Deputy Chief of Police Melron Kelly. Police officers are uniquely positioned to understand the effects of gun violence, not only as first responders and targets of that violence, but also as witnesses to the traumatic impacts that gun violence leaves on communities. Frustrated by the lack of action at the federal level even after a string of mass shootings, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin decided to act to curb gun violence in his city. There was just one problem—South Carolina’s pre-emption laws prevented him from regulating firearms or their components. That’s when he enlisted his city’s police department’s staff attorney and police advisor. Together they crafted language that is in line with state law and circumvents the state’s pre-emption restrictions. The ordinance does not outlaw bump stocks, but rather bans their use. While the mayor’s move is not a major step in dealing with gun violence, it is an important step that sends a message. “It is symbolic because we are in a state that is gun friendly,” says Chief Holbrook. In an area known for their lack of commonsense gun violence prevention measures the move, along with the police department’s support, shows that it is possible for local municipalities to act to protect their citizens and prevent gun violence.

WHAT’S NEXT

Columbia should serve as a blueprint of how young people’s involvement in local politics can turn into meaningful and lasting change. The reforms in the city also show that there’s an opportunity for young people to have a bigger voice. Police departments should be explicit in their inclusion of young people in their community boards and be proactive in their outreach to communities that might not feel welcomed in law enforcement spaces. Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history, with black and Latino youth, two groups that have historically been heavily monitored and overpoliced, making up more than a third of the generation. When dealing with youth of color it is important for police departments to be mindful of these realities and understand the reasons why some young people might be apprehensive to engage. Organizations working towards facilitating positive relationships between police and young people and community members must also be supported and funded. While young people were instrumental in the creation of Columbia’s community boards, as key parts of the community, they should be fairly and accurately represented. One possible way to bring more young people on board is for the police departments to be deliberate and proactive in their outreach to young people, either directly or through local organizations. Keeping the needs of young people in mind, law enforcement would be well prepared when reaching out to local youth to include them in their reform efforts.

CONCLUSION

Engaging local youth is essential to driving progressive criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention efforts. Columbia, South Carolina is a model for how young people can get involved these reforms at the local level. Sheriff Lott of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and Columbia Chief of Police Holbrook have been instrumental in leading with bold reforms and efforts. As police departments across America look for ways to prevent gun violence and reform criminal justice practices, they can look at Columbia, South Carolina, and the work of local youth organizers, as a model for their own departments. Columbia law enforcement also has an opportunity to give young people a greater voice. Young people today, understandably, engage with police in adversarial contexts and in confrontational scenarios. This creates an opportunity for police departments to engage with young people in proactive, constructive, and respectful, ways to ensure that the voices of local youth are being heard.

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