Investigator says youth gangs are prevalent in South Carolina

COLUMBIA — A special investigator told a women’s club on April 22 that gangs have spread throughout South Carolina, from inner-city neighborhoods to small towns, and that recruiters from places like Los Angeles and New York are active in our schools.

“There are no ethnic or cultural barriers to gang membership,” said Richland County deputy sheriff James Richardson. “It’s not an inner-city problem. Gangs love small towns because of the prevailing lack of education about them.”

He said that municipalities and schools exacerbate the problem by denying the existence of gangs locally because bad publicity often devalues housing and the reputations of schools. He said that “hard-core” gang members are in South Carolina from major cities, trying to build their own reputations. He said that the populations of the S.C. Dept. of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) prisons are increasingly composed of gang members.

“Politics and economics play a big part in how crime is reported in our state. Denial is more than a river in Egypt. We have third generation gang members here and are not educated about them because our municipalities and schools are snowing us. Every public high school in South Carolina has gangs,” Richardson said.

Richardson is one of only a few fulltime gang investigators in the state. He came to St. Peter Church and spoke to the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary because the members of the Sodality were interested in his expertise. Joan Lucius, president of the Sodality, said that the program’s reputation impelled the group to schedule a presentation. Many of the women in attendance were shocked to learn about the prevalence of gangs in South Carolina.

“It was amazing,” said member Linda Daugherty. “My eyes popped open, but it does make you aware of what to look for.”

Richardson said that some things to look for in youth are warning signs of gang membership. They include new slang, acting secretive, sagging pants, certain colors and team logos on clothing, tattoos on the body or book bags and a new interest in rap music, especially the so-called “gangsta rap.” Some of the meanings assigned to team and player names on shirts include: UNC (“United National Crips”) and Michael Vick, a professional basketball player (“Very Important Crip Killer”). The Bloods and the Crips are famous LA gangs. Some gangs use a six-pointed star, like the Jewish star, as an emblem; each point represents some attribute a gang member must live by. The BMD (“Black Mafia Disciples”) uses the star.

“The BMD are females, the most dangerous gang members because they usually carry the guns and drugs,” according to the investigator.

Another famous gang was the original motorcycle gang, the Hell’s Angels, who Richardson accused of large-scale, white-collar crime today. The gang was formed in 1945 by some returning servicemen in California. Richardson claimed that the east coast headquarters of the notorious bikers is in Charleston.

Teens and even younger children join gangs for identity, Richardson told the Sodality, and for discipline, recognition, love, a sense of belonging and, sometimes, money. They are initiated by being “jumped in” (beat up), “blessed in” (if a member recommends an initiate), “born in” (if your mother is a member, for instance) and “sexed in” (girl members may be required to have sexual relations with members).

Graffiti is a gang’s newspaper, Richardson said: “It’s like a dog marking a yard.” He said that parents must check their child’s book bag and behavior for indications of gang membership, but he reserved his harshest criticism for schools.

“We have third generation gang members in this state, yet parents oppose dress codes in school. Principals would love to have dress codes, and they are necessary. Schools should insist on tucked-in shirts, so weapons cannot be concealed, and a belt, so pants can’t sag. Sagging pants in prison means you are available for sex; it’s a sign of gang membership outside. Schools should make an effort to reduce gang indicators. Gangs are right now recruiting in our high schools,” he said.

When asked what a parent can do to combat the spread of gang membership within his or her own family, Richardson gave this advice: “Accept that any child can be in a gang, don’t think it’s a phase, know your child’s friends, ask questions and listen, participate in your child’s education and establish rules and be consistent. To keep a child out of a gang, help that child feel safe, self-confident and respected at home.”

The Richland County gang task force operates from a grant and has the full support of Sheriff Leon Lott. Gang unit presentations are free of charge, although Richardson and his partner have active speaking schedules. Call the Sheriff’s Office at (803) 691-9000.