Sheriff Alfonzo Williams points to the need for stakeholder participation, community service, mentoring and involvement of business and religious leaders to combating gang violence.
“We have a major gang problem in our small county,” Sheriff Williams said. “We have 60 something neighborhood gangs and I can remember three years ago we had four murders in Burke County and all of them were gang and drug related.”
Williams participated in the virtual CSRA town hall panel discussion Feb. 17 put on by 100 Black Men of Augusta, Inc. The discussion, moderated by WFXG meteorologist Jay Jeffries, tackled the topics of social justice, violence prevention and public safety. Speakers included District Attorney Jared Williams, Judge Monique
Walker and law enforcement officials from Richmond County and North Augusta.
RCSO Lt. Lucas Grant said it is crucial to reach the younger students before the “streets take them over.” Richmond County has also experienced an increase in gang activity, he said.
North Augusta Chief John Thomas agreed that a big component of combating violence is for law enforcement to partner with the schools.
“We don’t have the problem that Richmond County has, but we are surrounded by a lot of areas that do have gang violence,” he said of North Augusta. “If we catch these children early enough and change their values and change their minds then we are all better off.”
Parenting is an element of concern. It is counter-productive to threaten unruly children with the police, Grant pointed out. Law enforcement personnel struggle with letting kids feel that officers are available to support them and protect them and to help them grow as individuals. Parents call the police when their children refuse to attend school.
“That is not what we are here for,” Grant said. “We are not here to scare kids.”
Judge Walker weighed in on the court system’s ability to alter the mentality of people who have committed crimes. She advocated for G.E.D. requirements, anger management courses and gun safety courses. She also pointed to the value of reaching out to students.
“I think everyone is talking to the schools so there are a lot of dynamics at play here,” she said.
The judge also pointed out that mental health issues can be resolved by making sure that sentencing includes the proper treat- ment. She suggested that there is a need for better impact evaluations. Richmond County Marshall Ramone Lamkin pointed to the socio-economic connection to gang violence. He said teaching soft skills is essential in addressing the factors that brought offenders into the system in the first place.
“When we have someone who we can actually catch in the earlier stage, before they go down that path, we can link them with job opportunities with local companies, where they can actually make an honest dollar so that they don’t have to get distracted by the bling bling,” he said. “We can actually show them that they can make money the honest way and don’t have to have the sheriff’s office busting down their door and taking everything from them.”
District Attorney Williams continued the discussion and addressed society’s trend toward children exhibiting a lack of respect for parents.
“We have to work with the parents as well,” he said. “When we have a child growing up in a household where they do not have a male role model in their home, where they don’t have people in their community who are helping them work thru things, we have this situation where the children who we neglect are the ones the gangs are going to accept. So, we have to work to empower parents.”
As gun violence escalates, he said he could change his slogan from “Kids belong in classrooms not court rooms,” to “kids belong in classrooms not caskets.” He pointed out that gang-related violence is a national problem in which locally, communities can learn from other cities about what is working and what is not.
“I am so tired of, every day it seems like, hearing about another violent crime,” he said.
Police brutality was also brought up during the discussion. Chief Thomas said there is room for improvement in every agency. Earning respect of the citizens is important. However, recruiting good officers is a problem that every agency is facing.
Sheriff Williams said he has written Governor Brian Kemp asking for more consistency in law enforcement practices.
Jeffries then asked if it is a fact that justice for black men is different than other races in the United States. Grant pointed to Richmond County’s predominately African-American demographics.
“So, that’s predominately who is in our detention center,” he said. “That’s predominately the ones who are committing these felonies or misdemeanor crimes. So, it’s not that this agency is only targeting African Americans. We are targeting individuals who are making our streets unsafe.”
In closing Judge Walker encouraged all citizens to be mindful of the various things that contribute to the reasons why offenders make the decision to commit crimes.
“Demographics matter, mental health issues matter, access to an attorney and criminal justice matters, partnerships matter and relationships matter,” she said.