When Elgin Police Chief Harold Brown mentioned gangs back in the early 1990s, residents thought he was talking nonsense.

With few residents and businesses, the sleepy, rural town couldn’t be a den of gang activity, people surmised. The chief said the community considered it an urban phenomenon.

“They accused us of crying wolf,” he said, sitting up in a chair inside the tiny Elgin Town Hall. “People didn’t believe us.”

But a University of South Carolina survey recently completed by criminologists shows Brown wasn’t wrong. In fact, the report states there are 10 to 19 gangs operating in Kershaw County. Only Orangeburg County has more gangs among the rural counties, according to the survey.

Brown doesn’t need those numbers to be convinced, because he’s seen it firsthand.

He recalled the arrest of Daniel Shannon, a former Lugoff-Elgin High School student and a member of the Folk Nation, who later would go on to help kill a man in Columbia. This year, Shannon pleaded guilty to murder charges in the 2001 shooting death of Ralph Rachow at the Hilltop Restaurant.

Three years ago, a group of youths who said they were members of the Folk Nation nearly beat a man to death, Brown said. He also remembered the time a youngster boldly admitted he was a member of the Bloods and another who was out late, on the brink of being “jumped in,” or initiated into a local gang.

“People have opened their eyes more, I think, but some people are still in denial,” he said. “They don’t want to admit that there’s a problem.”

In 2000, the small police force began meetings to address the growing gang concern. They alerted parents to clothing, colors and behavior to look for. They explained that many of these wayward youth were homegrown, born and reared in the Elgin area.

For the people who came to the meetings, “it was generally astonishment,” said Elgin Police Lt. Edmond Hines. “But it was open-mindedness, it wasn’t not-in-my-back yard.”

Deputy Deborah Hunter, of the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Department, said gangs like small towns because they can recruit more easily. It starts in elementary school, she said, recalling a student who was caught handing out fliers asking other children if they “wanted to be down.”

It starts at home, where some children have free rein on the Internet and watch endless hours of television. She advised parents to be nosy, know where there children are and know their friends.

“Parents are not monitoring them,” she said. “Parents have to take a stand.”

Clifton Anderson, a Camden community activist, said families, schools, law enforcement and churches need to unite to ward off gangs. A few weeks ago, he helped host a community meeting about gangs, where about 100 people filled the sanctuary of Camden First United Methodist Church.

“Like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to come back,” he said.

To help with the problem, Kershaw County schools have adopted dress codes that ban attire with gang-related emblems, do-rags or bandannas. And school resource officers conduct gang-education programs. The district also is planning to send home brochures addressing bullying and harassment.

In Elgin, police said replacing the old Blaney School with a new Food Lion on Main Street destroyed a gang hangout. Inside the school, walls used to be covered in graffiti.

Community action and better communication among law enforcement are what leaders say they ultimately need. If there isn’t more of that, Anderson fears the drive-bys in places like Los Angeles and Atlanta will reach Kershaw County.

“I think they’re on the way to becoming that level,” he said.

But Hunter is quick to point out that among the schools, the community leaders and police, “there are no experts,” only people trying to make their communities safer. She said that while small towns might not be able to eliminate gangs, she believes they can get a handle on the problem.

Reach Woodson at (803) 771-8692

September 30, 2006  State (published as The State)  Columbia, South Carolina
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September 30, 2006  State (published as The State)  Columbia, South Carolina
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