Deputy Police Chief Melron Kelly’s first assignment as a rookie Columbia cop was part of a much-publicized attempt to change community policing. It’s turned into an 18-year love affair with Historic Waverly.
By Bria Barton, Megan Parrott and Turner Harrison
April 11, 2018
In the Historic Waverly neighborhood, there is “before” the koban and “after” it.
The before Waverly was home to much of Columbia’s black upper-middle class and was the epicenter of South Carolina’s civil rights movement. But after an influx of crime in the 1970s and ’80s, Waverly became home to a koban, an experiment based on Japan’s small neighborhood police stations in an attempt to change community policing.
For Melron Kelly, a 22-year-old rookie assigned to Waverly in 1999 as one of the koban’s first live-in officers, there is also “before” the koban and “after” it. But “after” has turned into a nearly 18-year love affair with the neighborhood and its people, even as he has risen the ranks to Columbia’s deputy police chief.
“I hated moving away. I really did, and if I ever get the opportunity to move back to Waverly I would,” Kelly said.
The koban, he said, “just kind of broke down the imaginary walls around police and community.”
“It humanized us in a sense,” he said.
Kelly talks about the koban “like it’s a person,” said Zakiya Esper, founder and director of Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, which now is housed in the building.
“He loves this house. He knows how old it is, he knows how old that door is,” Esper said. “He can tell you everything because he’s a part of it, he lived here,” she said.
In Japan, kobans, or small police stations also called “police boxes,” are scattered throughout communities. Their purpose is to develop a mutual relationship between residents and officers so that crime is more readily reported and more speedily dealt with.
The Lady Street Koban was largely funded by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation as a pet project of then-Chief Charles Austin, a member of one of the foundation’s advisory boards. It was one of the first attempts at community policing in South Carolina and the U.S.
Kelly says the koban was first and foremost a safe haven for the community, and he learned rather quickly that Waverly didn’t need a super cop but a friend, a mentor, a real person – a shoulder to lean on, an ear to listen.
Sometimes, that shoulder became a metaphorical kick in the pants, as it did with Chesley, a former drug addict and thief who is now an HIV counselor. Once adversaries but now friends, he and Kelly have weekly calls to reminisce and talk about the future. Chesley asked Columbia Voice to use only his first name for privacy.
“Sometimes you have to have an intervention, and sometimes people have to convene, or come into your life, or something has to trigger a response – a change – and I guess he’s one of the ones that triggered a change in my life,” Chesley said. “The attitude was to stay out of his way, but I’m glad he didn’t stay out of my way.”
The koban’s large community room also housed the City of Columbia Koban after-school program. “Koban kids” were helped with homework and taught life skills, but the primary focus was keeping them off the streets.
Former koban kid Keith Terry, now transportation manager for safety and training at Richland School District 1, said interacting with Kelly changed his stigmatized view of police. Under Kelly’s watchful but caring eye, Terry said, he found a father figure and was put on a path to success.
Terry and other koban kids had to turn in their report cards to the koban. He said he’d already been warned by three seventh-grade teachers to talk less and pay more attention.
“I’ll never forget one day a knock comes at the door in class and in comes Melron Kelly,” Terry said.
Kelly sat in on his classes and made sure he paid attention, Terry said.
“When I got back to koban, Melron explained to me why he did that. He said, ‘You have potential that you can’t see but others can see in you,’” Terry said.
The koban is still there, but priorities changed. Austin, now a dean at nearby Benedict College, became city manager. Money moved to more urgent needs, funding was cut and the koban is now largely defunct. Two police officers still live there, as Kelly did, but are not assigned to the neighborhood.
Kelly says many of the Historic Waverly residents he grew to love have since moved or died, but he still hopes the neighborhood can continue its comeback and see many of its homes restored. He thinks his time spent in the koban still helps keep crime low and mostly property-related.
The koban gave residents inured to crime “a true voice in how they were being policed and how they could change what was happening.”
“We were able to make an indelible mark in the crime because we empowered the neighbors to really stand up,” Kelly said.
Inspired by his time with the koban kids, Kelly, by then deputy chief, formed an alliance in 2016 between the police and Esper’s Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, which tries to keep young people from sliding into crime and prison.
After learning that the program needed a permanent home, Kelly arranged for Sowing Seeds to use the koban community room.
“He’s a learner and he’s a teacher and he’s a giver,” Esper said. “Whether he knows it or not, he’s a philanthropist, and I think that the level in which he gives is so selfless.”
Kelly credits his successful career and community influence to the koban and Historic Waverly.
“I’m 100 percent positive because I didn’t see myself – and it’s funny to say this – as a police officer,” Kelly said. “I saw myself as part of the community, and I just happened to be a cop.”