GREENVILLE, SC (WSPA) – Police said crimes are increasing across the country and in the state.

Leaders said more than half of U.S. homicides occurred among people ages 15-34 in 2020.

While Greenville is seeing a downward trend within the last year, city leaders said that’s not enough.

“As we know nationwide, even statewide, violent crimes are up. Luckily here in the City of Greenville, we’ve had a down turn,” said Greenville Police Chief Howie Thompson. “We have an 18 percent decrease over last year, that our violent crimes are down, and also our property crimes are down, and so the officers are out in the communities working hard with the communities.”

“We are always looking to improve. So while violent crime is down now 18 percent, we want it down further,” Thompson explained. “We want it down more. We want the City of Greenville to be the safest place.”

Officials want to reach young people getting involved in crimes, before it’s too late.

7NEWS reporter Asia Wilson was exclusively invited to a Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) Kickoff Meeting.

The two-day meeting recently consisted of extensive conversations in hopes of addressing violence among youth.

The Nicholtown Neighborhood Association has teamed up with the City of Greenville, select non-profits, service organizations, and state and local agencies to reduce the influence of criminal groups on children.

The National Network for Safe Communities facilitated the event.

“We’re just really excited to be able to bring everybody together. We have about 100 participants from across the city,” Chief Thompson explained. “It involves everybody. Our communities, all of our partners, other law enforcement–people that work with us. Our U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Solicitors Office, everyone is involved in this because everyone wants to keep people out of the criminal justice system.”

The City of Greenville received a $118,000 federal grant for the project.

Leaders said this new program will allow them to approach crime differently. Thompson said right now, they are working hard to go after those who are committing the most violent crimes.

Tim Harrison, an Intel Officer with the Greenville Police Department, said he spends a lot of time tracking violent cases.

“What I look for most of the time is violent crime and gang activity. That’s our focus right now, and what I do a lot of the time,” Harrison said. “Spend a lot of time looking through open source intelligence, social media, other things like that– to try to give us some insight into some of the trends we see -some of the people that are out committing some of these crimes – and just try to put ourselves in the shoes of the criminal to understand what’s driving, what’s motivating their behavior.”

“What we’re trying to do now with PSN, is trying to find new strategies to help people – encourage people towards changing that behavior,” Harrison said. “You know, we want to be as much as we can, we want to take a different approach.”

The Nicholtown community

Greenville is known to many as a city on the rise.

Some believe the City of Greenville has many great neighborhoods, like Nicholtown.

“We were so self-contained during the early years. We had our own grocery stores and soda shops, dry cleaners, barber shops, laundromats nightclubs service station. We were ready to self-contained. We have people from all walks of life as far as jobs and professions,” said Yvonne Reeder, PSN Coordinator, and former President of the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association.

“Nicholtown has a rich heritage,” said Alan Mitchell, President, Nicholtown Neighborhood Association.

Residents said the people who live in Nicholtown have always been hard-working and tight-knit.

“We are a community of positivity. We want to create a better environment for our youth to grow up in,” Reeder said. “We want to provide more opportunities for people to be their best.”

Like many communities nationwide, Nicholtown has had its share of past issues, too.

“Well, the nexus of it was a particular street in the Nicholtown community,” said Harrison. “It was a home that we saw was kind of an activity hotspot for young folks and a lot of illegal activity was going on there.”

“Some we were able to find out through our own investigations, others reported to us from the community. So, as we did a deep dive into that and we had more extreme incidents occur at that house including some shootings,” Harrison said. “We were able to find out, as we partnered with other agencies that they were a part of a criminal gang, that used this particular location and a copy of others, as kind of a hotspot or a hub so they can meet up and plan what they are going to do next.”

“That’s why we kept seeing this escalation of violence on this street, and we realized that just a small number of people that are linked to that particular community, that are really drawing down the quality of life, and victimizing a whole group of people,” Harrison explained. “You know, you’re talking two to three people in a neighborhood or community of 4,000, living in fear because of what’s going on.”

Harrison said they discovered two brothers and their younger brother were involved to a degree.

“That’s one of the things that we’re looking at now, is a lot of the adults and adult gangs we see are recruiting younger and younger members of society to come and get involved, and I think that part of the issue is, the culture that we’re living in today, the way that we can be, we all have this longing to do something or be somebody, and I think for a lot of kids now, we’re living in a very confusing time,” Harrison said.

“That’s what we’re trying to do is identify those who are willing to go out there and pick up a gun, identify those who are willing to pull the trigger and victimized other people, and take them out of play,” Harrison said.

“At the very least, make sure that they stay incarcerated, best case scenario, we give them options and resources to try to that they’ll make a better choice,” Harrison said.

Greenville Police and residents said great strides have been made in cleaning up the crime, not just in Nicholtown, but all over Greenville.

Kids and crime

“Greenville is one of the safest cities in South Carolina. We have a very low violent crime rate. We have reduced a violent crime, for the last four quarters, and right now from this year to last year, we’re down 18 percent. So, where the rest of the state, and the rest of the country is going up in violent crime, we’ve reduced it, but we’re not happy with that,” said Eleazer Hunt, Strategic Planning & Analysis Director with the Greenville Police Department.

Leaders said kids are still getting involved in the wrong crowds.

“We know that there are individuals, particularly children, who are getting enticed into a group dynamic and getting involved in crime, and we want to stop that completely,” Hunt said.

“Adult gangs we see are recruiting younger and younger members of society to come and get involved. and I think that part of the issue is, the culture that we’re living in today,” Harrison said. “We all have this longing to do something or be somebody.”

That was Al Harris’ story.

“My mother gave me up to my grandmother at five-years-old and I grew up with a sense of, ‘I’m a burden,'” Harris said.

Harris said he then got involved in the wrong things.

“Being on both ends. The shooter and being the one getting shot,” Harris said. “I didn’t have nobody that could say, baby you could do better for yourself. This is not who you are.”

Lindsay Berry is a counselor at Sterling School, and she said there’s a desperate need for change and more mentors.

“The majority of my students have experienced trauma in some way, whether it’s abuse, neglect, or they have parents that are incarcerated, or they have witnessed violent crimes,” Berry said. “We do see those students seeking out something, whether it be crime or other ways to channel some of that trauma to try to get involved in something that creates family for them or a sense of belonging.”

Situations like this are the reason why more than 100 people came together for the kick-off project in Nicholtown.

Just the beginning

“One of the reasons why we’re focusing to start on one community is we need a kernel,” Hunt said. “We need a seed point to build this off of.”

“If we tried to do it for the entire city, it’s often overwhelming as we stand up these partnerships–particularly when we’re asking non-profits or businesses or other organizations to work,” Hunt explained. “If it’s too broad, they may not have the resources to do that. But if we say, we’re going to start here in this community and we’re going to work with these several families nobody feels like it’s something they can’t accomplish.”

Tim Harrison said the department took a step back, partnered with other agencies across the Upstate and noticed a spike in violent crime going back a few years.

“We realized we needed to look at things in a different way to try to address it longer term,” said Harrison “Because we can go out and arrest anybody that we need to arrest – we’re going to investigate any crime that has been committed – but the long-term effects and the downstream effects, that those, especially violent crimes, have on the community, on families.”

“That’s what we want to be able to approach it in a different way–a more sustainable way,” Harrison said. “Whether than just locking somebody up, they go to jail, they may get out, they offend again.”

Harrison said they’re trying to break that cycle, especially for people who are at risk and getting involved in gang activity and violent crime.

“We want to make sure that they know that they have options, that they have other things that they can do,” Harrison said. “We want to put the resources in front of them to be able to break that circle if they choose. If they don’t, law enforcement is going to do what law enforcement does.”

“We’re going to be the back stop for people who refuse to change and aren’t willing to make a different choice,” he said.

Engaging the community

Harrison said they want the community to step up with resources and open arms.

“We want to empower the community to be able to step up and be that moral voice and say look, you know what you’re doing is wrong,” said Harrison. “We want you to make changes. We are here to support you. We are going to offer you some resources to help make it easier.”

Harrison said that it’s not going to be easy.

“We’re going to help, though, and that’s something that law enforcement can’t do. We can’t be that moral voice. People don’t want to be directed or told what to do by the government by the police,” he said.

“The basis for the program is to reduce crime, and to keep individuals out of the criminal justice system, by providing strong partnerships with the community, non-profits, and other organizations, along with, the city and police department to help those at risk individuals and track them and to provide resources to get them in a direction that is not going to take them down the criminal justice pathway,” Hunt said.

“Engage those children in different ways, so that they’re not lead towards doing activity that potentially could lead to an arrest,” Hunt said.

Many people who were at the two-day event said the goal is to get a hold of people early, before it’s too late.

“What we’re working on trying to get them to have a different mindset. We’re all in this together. We’re a community. We’re a village. We look out for our people. We want to have love as the main theme of the community and not hate,” said Sylvia Palmer, Former President of the Nicholtown Neighborhood Association, and PSN Coordinator.

“We’re working hard to help people if they are having some problems to find resources to help them to cope with some of those problems, rather than to take the violent way of settling disputes and things like that,” Palmer said.

The path forward

During the meeting each leader joined hands, laying out a framework, one activity after another. They looked at all of the resources in the Nicholtown community and found there are many that can support the most vulnerable.

“This project helps to give you ideas and proven ways that it has worked to create safe neighborhoods through the use of several organizations, community members being the biggest piece of it and a smaller concentration of police being involved,” Reeder said.

Participants like Berry said the future, and this potential new plan, give her hope.

“This is very personal to me, because I can picture my kids’ faces every conversation that we’re having here today. There’s absolutely hope. I mean, our kids want to break the violent or excuse me this cycle. They really do,” Berry said.

As for Harris, who was once that child crying out for help, he’s now on a new path.

“Because my grandmother would then take me to my aunt or my uncle or my cousins. I was never stable until now. I’m 38 years old. This my first time in life being stable. I’m married now with kids,” Harris said.

Harris is working with kids every day through an organization called God’s True Disciples.

“We’re a voice. We’re a voice for these children who sometimes are misunderstood,” Harris said.

Now he believes it’s going to take more real people, with real stories, consistently being there to answer the call.

“It’s going to take for somebody to answer the phone call at four in the morning and get out they bed and go see about a matter,” Harris said. “It’s going to take some people that done been through the dirt themselves and now they done made it.”

Harris added that he is hopeful this project could be the beginning of a greater solution.

“To cancel it out completely, it’s going to take time,” Harris said. “It’s going to take time. This is a start. This is a start and it’s going to take consistency.”

So, what’s next for this project? The work starts right now.

All of the people who participated in this meeting will continue to build partnerships with one another, and go through online training and asset based community development starting in September.

Hunt said the National Network for Safe Communities will be in Greenville for over a year to build and guide the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative.

Leaders said if the pilot project works, the goal is to expand it to other communities in the city.