COLUMBIA — Programs that give youth important life skills are the solution the public thinks can best resolve a recent increase in violent crime in Columbia, as discussed at Tuesday’s community action meeting.
Community leaders gathered at Friendship Baptist Church for a panel discussion that gave the public an opportunity to speak and ask questions of education and law enforcement representatives.
Columbia Schools Superintendent Phyllis Chase, Mayor Darwin Hindman, police Officer Mike Hayes, Lorenzo Lawson of the Youth Empowerment Zone and Phil Steinhaus of the Columbia Housing Authority comprised the panel.
The Youth Community Coalition sponsored the event with KRCG Channel 13 and Inside Columbia magazine.
While the discussion started out emphasizing Columbia’s crime rate and what police can do to curb it, the forum shifted gears as those in attendance soon offered their ideas as to how the community can take a larger role in the effort.
Lawson, in his opening remarks, brought up the importance of taking care of Columbia’s underprivileged youth, who often face social and economic disadvantages from birth.
“If they don’t have the opportunity to do the right thing, then they do the wrong thing,” said Lawson, who is the executive director of the at-risk youth program Youth Empowerment Zone, which helps youth develop skills that will help them find jobs in the future.
Many of these youths have been behind from the beginning, Lawson said, and there needs to be programs to help at-risk youth from prenatal to college.
“We’re talking about preventing crime,” Lawson said, not about catching them quicker after they commit a crime.
Chase’s remarks fell in line with Lawson’s.
“We need to be a strong partner in the prevention of violence,” she said. A start to improving these situations is developing strong relationships with students, she said, and realizing that students are the first line of defense for problems within the school.
For example, Chase takes part in a program where she holds lunchtime discussions with students about what is going on in their schools. In general, she said, students tell her that they feel safe in the classroom.
Law enforcement’s role in violent crime prevention was also discussed. More officers have been assigned to areas of high crime, said Hindman, and the Police Department has set up a violent crimes task force.
“Police can do only so much; social services can do only so much,” Hindman said. Overall, the help of the community and various organizations is needed, he said.
Moreover, Hindman said the problem of violent crime is not unique to Columbia and parallels trends nationwide.
Columbia already has a method of crime prevention that can be effective if put to good use. The Neighborhood Watch program, for example, is one of the oldest and most effective ways to prevent crime, Hayes said.
He advised the public to leave their homes to get to know their neighbors, and not just those next door but on the next block, too. Hayes invited anyone to sign up for the program after the meeting.
“There is going to be more to come if we don’t come together to solve these problems,” Lawson said.