May 5, 2010 3:20:00 PM
Garthia Elena Burnett -
If you''ve had your ear to the grapevine over the past couple years, you''d think Columbus could be featured on an episode of "Gangland."
They could start on Northside, where the prostitutes and crack houses rule the streets, so I''ve heard. Then, you can pretty much move on to the school of your choice. There, you''ll find prescription drugs run rampant, and being in a gang is a way of life, despite zero-tolerance policies. Again, this is all hearsay.
Columbus police acknowledge there is a gang problem -- or at least a gang "nuisance," as Lt. John Duke puts it. Specifically, local gangs are the Black Guerilla Family, the Vice Lords, who are mainly on Northside and associate themselves with the color red, and the Black Gangster Disciples, who are mainly on Southside and associate themselves with blue.
BGF, Duke told the 2010 Citizens'' Police Academy class Monday night, are the largest problem, easily numbering at least more than 300. Their membership is in areas around Sim-Scott and Propst parks, 14th Avenue North and MLK Drive, Sandfield, off Yorkville in the areas of Applewood and Springs Terrace and Burns Bottom, Duke said.
But only a handful of these gang members -- about 2 percent -- are serious, "trigger-pulling" bangers. This 2 percent leads the groups in gang activity -- burglaries, robberies and shootings.
And there''s bad news for those who want to stereotype Northside as a hub of drugs and sex for sale.
"You can buy cocaine on any street corner in Columbus," Lt. Eddie Hawkins of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics said. "It''s that rampant."
Prostitution also is no isolated crime. It happens anywhere there are clubs, said Duke, noting clubs mean easy access to potential customers.
The biggest problem, not just in Lowndes County but across the state is meth.
This year alone, there have been 308 meth labs discovered in Mississippi, 11 in the last week. Last year, there were more than 600 labs discovered. For the past two years, Lowndes County has led the state in meth.
Hawkins believes new state legislation requiring a prescription for cold-relief medicines ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, precursors to methamphetamine, is the solution to the state''s meth problem. Oregon passed a like law in 2006, he noted; three years later, they discovered only 10 meth labs, seven of which were dump sites. Meth cooks had gone into Oregon from other states to get rid of the materials they used to cook the dope.
The state''s meth registry, limiting the amount of ephedrine- or pseudoephedrine-containing medicines a person can buy, hasn''t even put a dent in the problem, Hawkins said.
Incidentally, the city''s gang and drug activity both have close ties to Atlanta.
Being in the Citizens'' Police Academy has been enlightening. There''s been one recurring theme: Columbus has all the same problems as the big cities; they''re just not as frequent and on a smaller scale.
This is nothing new; crime happens everywhere.
Still, prompted by a perceived spike in crime, many will sleep with one eye open and be leery of every "suspicious" character they see.
A gentleman joked a few weeks ago, "I''m scared of everyone who isn''t just like me; aren''t you?"
"Of course. Isn''t everyone?" I replied, being facetious.
Fortunately, most of us have the common sense to separate hype from reality.
Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John understands the need to draw a line between local lore and hard facts.
"I do not believe that perception is reality," St. John said when introducing himself to the 2010 Citizens'' Police Academy class in March. "Perception is perception. Reality is reality."
While Columbus has its problems, it''s no Atlanta, New Orleans or New York.
I, personally, would like to believe we live in a relatively safe area.
A passing stranger will help an older woman who has fallen at the post office.
Concerned onlookers will call the police when they see a 10-year-old walking busy streets by himself.
Neighbors will offer a friendly courtesy call when your garage door is left open and you''re not at home.
An elderly widow will offer your children a phone and a cookie when they''ve locked themselves out of the house.
And a guy just driving by will pick up a hitchhiker with a sketchy story and try to find him a place to sleep.
But, in all honesty, I still lock and bolt my door, even in broad daylight.