S.C. is highest in nation in violent crime

South Carolina's violent crime rate again was higher than that of any other state in the nation in 2006 -- and two of its smaller metro areas found themselves in the top five with some much larger cities, FBI statistics show.

South Carolina's violent crime rate -- 765 per 100,000 people -- ticked up about 0.5 percent over 2005, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for 2006. Nationwide, violent crimes were up nearly 2 percent.

Violent crimes include murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

Dozens of people gathered in prayer Tuesday night in downtown Columbia to remember some of the victims of those crimes.

The S.C. chapter of Parents of Murdered Children marched from Finlay Park to Washington Street United Methodist Church for a candlelight vigil.

"You have to remember the victims," said Molly Brady of Columbia, whose 38-year-old son, Troy, was shot and killed in Forest Acres in 2004.

"It validates that they were alive and here and loved and with us and they still are. The love doesn't change."

Sumter's per-capita violent crime rate ranked third in the nation -- behind Detroit and Memphis -- and Florence ranked fifth -- behind Shreveport, La. -- out of 350 metropolitan statistical areas.

"Every city, especially metro areas, suffer from violent crime," said Florence Police Chief Anson Shells, who had not seen the new statistics. "I've never considered the Florence area to be a particularly violent area. I consider this to be a very safe area."

The Florence metropolitan statistical area includes Florence and Darlington counties. It also ranked fifth according to the FBI's 2005 Uniform Crime Report.

Shells said Florence is struggling with a growing gang problem that has accounted for a "fair amount" of the area's violent crime.

"Since 2003, we've had in excess of 30 homicides in Florence," he said. "We've linked nine of those homicides back to gang activity."

Sumter ranked 24th in the 2005 FBI report.

Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis declined to comment, saying he needed to look at the numbers more carefully before talking about them.

Efforts to reach Sumter Police Chief Patty Patterson were not successful Tuesday.

The Columbia metro area's violent crime rate was up slightly -- barely a tenth of a percent -- over 2005, but the area's ranking moved to 36th, up from 77th a year ago. The Columbia metro area includes Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, Calhoun, Fairfield and Saluda counties.

On the FBI's Web site this year, users must first get past a pop-up message warning against using the statistics to rank or compare areas.

Law enforcement officials also caution against using the rankings to declare an area "most dangerous," saying the statistics don't take into account neighborhoods or lifestyle choices.

"What you're coming away with is an idea that you're more likely to be a victim of violent crime than other areas," said Capt. Todd Tucker with the Florence County Sheriff's Office. "I certainly would argue that is not the case."

Tucker said the Florence metro area ranks near the top every year the rankings are released. He said that has hurt the county from an economic standpoint.

"We've had to meet with prospective businesses and explain from a Florence County standpoint what's going on," Tucker said. "I can only say that if those were the ones that called, how many didn't call when they looked at a list like this?"

But some criminal justice experts see value in the numbers, as long as they are looked at in the appropriate context.

Richard Rosenfeld, curators professor of criminology in criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said personal safety is more about lifestyle than where you live.

"You spend a lot of time outdoors at night, your risk for crime goes up, no matter where you live," he said.

While South Carolina outpaces all other states in violent crime per capita for the second year in a row, the District of Columbia's rate still tops the nation almost doubling the Palmetto State's rate.

South Carolina's rate of 765.5 violent crimes per 100,000 people was up slightly from 761.6 per 100,000 in 2005. By comparison, the D.C. violent crime rate came in at 1,508 violent crimes per 100,000 people.

At the Columbia vigil, Marvin Bryant, whose 21-year-old son, Marcus, was fatally shot in Richland County in 2001, hopes educating young people about how murder affects the families left behind will act as a deterrent.

That's why he founded the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.

"There's nothing that I can do about what has happened, Bryant said. "But what I believe I can do is share with others what may happen if they don't change their lives."