Making community safe responsibility of all of us

info@islandpacket.comSeptember 9, 2012 

A child's death focuses our attention like nothing else.

And when it's the result of senseless violence, as in the shooting death of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton, our outrage knows no bounds. Khalil's death is particularly frustrating because one of the people charged with murder in his death has been arrested not once, not twice, but more than two dozen times.

We want something to change. We want to act. But what and how?

Let's start by breaking the code of silence about what's going on in our neighborhoods, whether it's born of fear, mistrust, indifference or a misguided sense of loyalty.

The Rev. Edward Johnson, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Port Royal and a counselor at Hilton Head Island High School, threw out this challenge at Penn Center's Labor Day celebration: "So what is this? Is it a community or a chaotic society? Where do we go from here?"

Johnson called on the people of St. Helena Island -- where a series of violent crimes earlier this year left four people dead and three injured -- to take back their community. But his message rings true across Beaufort County. Few areas have been left untouched by gun violence. We've seen more than a dozen shootings in 2012, many similar to what played out on Hilton Head's Allen Road on Sept. 1.

Law enforcement officials have expressed frustration at the silence they get from potential witnesses to violent crime.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone told the St. Helena community in July that they planned to use a legal tool to break that silence -- the ability to subpoena witnesses before anyone is charged in a case.

They said they would look to a state law known as the "mob statute" to subpoena witnesses to give sworn testimony. That testimony would be presented to a grand jury to indict suspects. Witnesses who refuse to cooperate could be held in contempt of court.

In 2011, Stone helped draft a bill that would give solicitors the authority to form investigative grand juries that could subpoena witnesses and documents in certain types of crimes.

Stone pointed to the successful prosecution of a Walterboro man in a 2009 drive-by shooting that killed a 20-month-old child. He said the conviction would not have been possible without a state grand jury investigation, which compelled testimony from witnesses who wouldn't talk to police.

The bill died at the end of the 2012 session, but it should be reintroduced.

Some look at the criminal records of the men arrested and charged in Khalil's death and blame Stone and the judicial system for their being out on the street. The type of repeat offender they represent is exactly what Stone has targeted with his Career Criminal Prosecution Team, started in 2009. In 2011, 37 defendants in Beaufort County General Sessions were defined as career criminals and had 162 charges among them. He's hired a crime analyst trained by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division to help the team. The analyst's job is to identify who among the people facing a bond hearing are repeat offenders, who should be kept behind bars and fast-tracked for prosecution.

Three of the four arrested after Khalil was shot were convicted felons, but they were released from prison before the career criminal program began. The charges filed against them last week were the first felony charges since their release from prison.

There's no magic formula for making our communities safer. If there were, surely we would have tapped it by now.

If compelling testimony at the investigation stage is what it takes to get the evidence needed to charge and prosecute wrongdoers, then it should be done. Targeting career criminals for prosecution is a smart thing to do. Police officers and prosecutors must build trust and respect in the community.

But add to that list the responsibility of people in the community to step up and say, "no more." To speak up when they see crimes being committed or problems headed their way. To watch out for young people and help steer them away from trouble.

Police officers, prosecutors and judges can't solve an issue of this magnitude by themselves. They should be our last resort, not the first.

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