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WTVM Exclusive: Assesment contends 1800 gang members in Columbus.

COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - News Leader 9 continues to take a look at an outside company’s in-depth analysis of the practices within the Columbus police department. That assessment was paid for by local businesses. We take a look at how the police force handles gang activity in the Fountain City. With a quick search for “gangs in Columbus GA” several videos of gang activity identified by local law enforcement come back - click HERE to check one out. Consultation company Jensen Hughes was paid to come in and look into the Columbus Police Department’s practices. One of the things they found was the city of Columbus does not have a written overall gang strategy that encompasses prevention, intervention, and suppression of gangs. “Most of the CPD personnel we interviewed stated gang-related violence and crime has significantly increased and become prevalent within the past couple years, in part due to the rapid emergence of local hybrid gangs. During our interviews, gang experts said, based on reliable intelligence and Georgia Department of Corrections information, there are approximately 1,800 gang members in Columbus. At the time of our assessment, the CPD Gang Analysis and Investigation Unit had 446 validated gang member profiles in its records management system. Addressing issues related to gangs should include a comprehensive strategy that addresses prevention, intervention and suppression. While the city provides some funding for gang prevention and intervention, it has not developed a comprehensive approach in conjunction with the police department. In fact, the police department does not have a gang enforcement strategy or a gang enforcement unit, and it does not engage in formal full-time participation on any local, regional, state or federal task force focused on gangs, drugs illegal guns or violent offenders. A few current officers within the department say the information is concerning. While choosing to remain completely choosing to remain anonymous, one officer we spoke with said, ”There’s a critical problem with gangs in Columbus. We’ve got 1800 gang members in Columbus that are estimated in that study, and we’ve got one person... no boots on the ground. We’ve got an analyst that sits behind a computer just validating people as gang members because they’ve been identified by tattoos or just being in prison. We don’t have boots on the ground talking to these gang members face to face.” According to Jensen Hughes, the work of that one analyst does not go unnoticed. The assessment gives praise: “While woefully understaffed, the single, half-time position in the Analysis and Investigation unit has accomplished much and worked hard to make gangs a department priority.” The assessment points out Columbus Police Chief Freddie Blackmon along with other city leaders said most of the homicides in 2021, a record year with 63 people killed, were domestic related opposed to being gang-related. According to the assessment, officers within the department said 80 percent of those homicides were gang related. The assessment also points to the department having a two-pronged approach to address violence, although it is not specific to gangs. CPD’s Suppression Approach to Gangs: “The CPD does not have a written gang enforcement strategy. The department informed us they have a two-pronged approach to address the increased violence encountered beginning in 2021. This approach was not specific to gangs, but rather violence overall in general. The chief told us the approach includes community policing and proactive policing. The proactive policing approach has two parts, according to the chief. One is periodic joint CPD and Georgia State Patrol three-day crime suppression operations in high crime areas to identify and arrest people violating the law, engaging in criminal gang activity, illegally possessing firearms and possessing outstanding warrants. The other is partnering with the Georgia Department of Community Supervision in making arrests on probation violation warrants particularly related to repeat offenders and those involved in violent acts. Our observations found proactive policing by patrol to suppress illegal gang activity was occurring very rarely and was non-existent on most shifts. All the patrol officers and supervisors we interviewed said they primarily conducted reactive policing. Most cited low staff levels and high call volume as reasons they were restricted from being able to engage in proactive policing. For the same reason, some officers reported they do not engage in community policing activities. Additionally, as noted earlier in this report, the department’s current community policing function is not driven by a written strategic plan but is event-driven and not focused primarily on problem-solving.” Jensen Hughes recommendations: 10.1) Create a written city-wide gang strategy that encompasses prevention, intervention and suppression. This plan should be developed in conjunction with the City’s Office of Crime Prevention and the CPD, with robust collaboration with key community stakeholders. The plan should identify specific actions community groups and CPD will take to address gang issues. To facilitate this effort, consideration should be given to looking to other cities successes, such as that of the San Jose Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force. 10.2) CPD should develop a gang enforcement strategy which details in writing the responsibility of each Bureau and unit in the department in addressing the most serious gang problems, including violence. 10.3) Consider separating the Gang Analysis and Investigations Unit from OPS, placing it in the Bureau of Investigations and staffing it appropriately. This will help expand its gang intelligence gathering beyond the mere validation of gang members and the provision of notifications of residential addresses of gang members being released from state custody. The unit should then take the lead in conducting investigations of gang-related crime, which should serve to increase access to and sharing of gang intelligence within the Bureau’s numerous units 10.4) CPD should consider having personnel from the relocated Gang Analysis and Investigations Unit participate in one or more local, regional state or federal task forces which focus on gangs, drugs, illegal guns and violent offenders. 10.5) Seek to expand access to the gang intelligence program and database which is shared with and administered by the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office. Consider providing access to personnel in the Bureau of Investigations to increase the department’s ability to develop enhanced charges under state gang statutes for consideration by prosecutors. In recent weeks, the Columbus police department has been working with federal and local partners to conduct searches, make seizes and arrest validated gang members. But though those successes, employment rates in the department are still down making it impossible to end the gang violence in the fountain city. News Leader 9 has reached out to Columbus Police Chief Freddie Blackmon. His office refers request for comment to the following statement: “I am thankful for the business community’s support in funding the study conducted on the Columbus Police Department. A draft report of the findings has been given to my command staff for review and consideration. We look forward to continue moving CPD in the right direction.” -Chief Freddie Blackmon Copyright 2023 WTVM. All rights reserved.

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