A community meeting to discuss ways to prevent gun violence was held May 3 at Bluffton Middle School. Participating in the discussion with attendees were, from left, Beaufort County Sheriff Staff Sgt. Daniel Allen; Bluffton Police Chief Stephanie Price; Permetha “Rudy” Milton, whose son Dominique Williams was murdered in 2015; and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Beaufort County is no stranger to violence, but a recent spate of shootings in the Burton area spurred the mother of a gunshot victim to accelerate her advocacy against gun violence.

Permetha “Rudy” Milton’s son Dominique Williams, 17, was killed by another teenager near Coligny Beach Park in July 2015. Since then, Trey Blackshear, 18, and DJ Fields, 18, both of Bluffton, were killed by other teenagers with guns.

“What has fueled my advocacy is the passing of my beloved son, and so many of my close friends who have lost loved ones due to senseless gun violence. I do not want another parent to go through what I’m going through,” Milton said. “There has to be more awareness and community talk about gun violence.”

Milton coordinated two recent community meetings, one at Battery Creek High School and the other, held May 3, at Bluffton Middle School.

In attendance at the Bluffton meeting were Bluffton Police Chief Stephenie Price, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner, and BCSO Staff Sgt. Daniel Allen. The audience was small and composed mostly of relatives of victims.

“I think it’s just time that the community can come together so that we can find a solution for the youth,” Milton said. “We just need solutions for the youth to be active, not only during the school time, but summertime is coming up.”

Allen, who at 17 never considered he would go into law enforcement, was a school resource officer (SRO) at Battery Creek and Whale Branch high schools. 

“I came up through our public schools. I had school resource officers,” he said. “Honestly, you could have never told me I was going to become a cop.”

Allen said his experience with an SRO “saved him” in high school, because that officer was also his track coach.

He said that the SROs are often called to step in and teach a class on just about anything. Allen said that when he goes in, he sometimes just lets the kids ask him questions.

“Let’s just have an open dialogue,” he said.

Allen said he believes that adult tendencies to label students negatively often leads to some students becoming that negative stereotype. And social media isn’t helping either.

“I try to talk to young men and young women all the time about what they’re posting on social media,” Allen said.

Beyond the social media postings, Allen had some firm words about keeping guns out of the hands of children.

“Folks, we’ve got to lock the guns up. I’m a law enforcement officer with a gun on my hip every day. I know unfortunately that some kids have more access to weapons than even some of the folks I work with every day, because at home nobody locks it up, or (the kids) know where everything’s at,” said Allen. “If it’s in your vehicles, don’t leave it in there, but lock up your cars.”

Allen warned that with summer coming soon, young people will have more free time and that can be dangerous. “We don’t want those guns just ending up in their hands,” he said.

One of the programs all three law enforcement officers endorsed during the meeting was Crimestoppers, an anonymous way to report crimes and suspicious activity 24/7. Tanner said the presentation in Beaufort was possibly one reason there was a reduction of the shootings that have plagued the Burton community recently.

“I think it’s fair to say, because of that meeting and how we treated that meeting, along with pushing out Crimestoppers as much as we did, I think the community heard it,” he said.

Price, who heads a department of 52 officers and is hiring more, said that she would love to be everywhere in the community, but it is the community that really knows what is going on.

“We really do need the community to come together,” she said. “We’re all the eyes and the ears. And it is about Crimestoppers and how they anonymously report. Just today, I received a call with a tip about a shooting that we’d had in Bluffton,” she said. “This is what it takes – it takes your call. You live in the neighborhoods, you hear what people say. … Even if it’s something so small that you don’t think it matters, it does to us, and we act upon those tips.”

Tanner concurred.

“The opportunity for you to make a call on Crimestoppers is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for whatever reason you think it is. It is anonymous. We don’t know who’s calling, we don’t know what was said, and what information was shared,” said Tanner. “The phone call does not come to the sheriff’s office, and the phone call does not go to the Bluffton PD or the Beaufort PD. It goes to Crimestoppers, and that information is relayed back to us. Once it’s reported to us through Crimestoppers. We’ve got 72 hours to react to the information, and report that back if it was a great tip, good tip or the tip didn’t amount to anything.”

The phone number for Crimestoppers of the Lowcountry is 843-554-1111. This number serves 11 counties, including Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties.

Crimestoppers also offers a smartphone app, P3 Tips, available for IOS and android devices. The free download allows users to set their general location and offers a quick and easy way to share tips.

Tanner encourages use of the app. “For parents or for anyone who has a cell phone, you can upload that P3 Tip app very easily,” he said.

Some of the attendees wanted to know how often the police or sheriff’s deputies were in the schools talking to students.

“We actually have school resource officers in our high schools, middle schools, one of our elementary schools, and they usually have classes on different things, and they present at the assemblies,” Price said. “The great thing about having them there is that our kids trust our law enforcement that are there … because they see them all the time. They interact with them. And the officers hear oh, so much, so much about everything.”

Tanner added that there are SROs throughout the county school district, including those private schools that agree to have officers assigned.

“Those SROs are extremely important in that school environment, and they are very, very active in what they do,” he said.

Not only are the SROs mixing with the students during school hours, but a number of initiatives by all local law enforcement agencies go beyond emergency response.

Price said BPD officers participate in several programs to interact with students, from handing out lollipops at schools to soccer in a neighborhood street.

“We might be in uniform, but we’re not there to enforce anything,” said Price.

The day after the meeting at Bluffton Middle School, BPD officers were going to participate in “Walk and Bike to School Day” at River Ridge Academy.

“We also started a new program called ‘Catch it with Cops.’ We have given our police officers sports equipment, like footballs, soccer balls, basketballs and kick balls,” Price said. When officers on patrol see kids out in the streets, “they’re supposed to stop and play with the kids, and then they leave them with the sports equipment,” she said. “I had one officer ask for five at once because he plays with the kids at McCracken every Friday. We ran out of equipment in an hour.”

One of the concerns from the audience members was how to identify and help young people who appear to be headed for trouble. Both Price and Tanner said that their officers and other members of the community are able to identify those children who exhibit behavioral issues.

“Nobody really just beats up on somebody because they feel like beating up on somebody because it’s Tuesday,” Price said. “It’s usually something more, like behavioral health issues, a mental health crisis,” said Price. “Our community mental health advocate, who’s embedded in our Criminal Investigations Division, follows up on (reports) and she talks to the parents, she talks to the kids, and tells them what resources are available in the county, and what resources are available through the National Alliance on Mental Illness.”

Both agencies said that catching attitudes before students enter high school was paramount to keeping them from getting into trouble.

“If we can identify a child in elementary school that has behavioral problems, the first thing to do is find out why. Is it something that’s happening at home, something’s happening in the community, or is it a product of school that he’s already being bullied?” said Tanner.

Milton plans on coordinating more community meetings, and is in the process of preparing for a youth empowerment program before the start of the next school year.

“We need programs like I had in school, like the D.A.R.E. program,” Milton said, “bringing in more people who can make an impact so (students) do not have to resort to the street.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.