COLUMBIA -- Supporters of a newly signed law say police now have important weapons to combat South Carolina's growing gang problem.
Critics contend it gives the state too much power, and they worry that a proposed gang database would be used to deprive people who haven't been convicted of a crime of some basic rights.
When Gov. Mark Sanford signed the law Tuesday, South Carolina joined 36 other states and the District of Columbia with anti-gang laws.
"The biggest obstacle was getting communities to understand they have a gang problem," said Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, who has been pushing anti-gang legislation since 1999.
More than half of 170 law enforcement agencies surveyed by the University of South Carolina in a study released last year reported gang activity in their areas. The Midlands and Pee Dee regions claimed the highest percentages of gang activities.
The new law makes it a crime for gang members to threaten other members who want to leave the gang, to coerce someone to join a gang, or to threaten witnesses or victims. In addition to prison time and fines, gang members can be sued by victims, witnesses or municipalities.
The law also gives the state grand jury the authority to investigate gang crimes and requires the State Law Enforcement Division to create a statewide database of gang members.
Knotts, a former Columbia police officer, said he still would like to revisit an earlier proposal that would have increased penalties for certain crimes if committed by gang members. His original bill would have made it a crime to belong to a gang. He dropped that provision after concerns arose about racial profiling.
A statewide gang database, Lott said, which is supposed to be linked to an FBI database, will help with investigations and protect officers who stop suspected gang members for questioning.