VIOLENCE IN FIVE POINTS

Weekend violence rekindles Five Points safety concerns

nophillips@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2013 

Traffic makes it's way down Harden Street in the heart of Five Points.

— Just when Five Points seemed to have calmed down, an early Sunday morning mob fight and shooting has revived debate over how to curb violence in the popular entertainment district.

Eight to 10 shots were fired in the 800 block of Harden Street shortly after police broke up a brawl involving 15 to 20 men near two bars at the Harden and Greene streets intersection, according to a Columbia Police Department incident report.

No one was injured and no property was damaged. But the incident has peeled the scab off hard feelings that somewhat had been soothed after a violent weekend in September that included two mob fights. Those incidents caused a citywide controversy on police presence in Five Points and beyond.

After Sunday’s violence, people again began posting criticisms of Columbia police on the Fight Back for 5 Points Facebook page. Many accuse police of focusing on underage drinking instead of policing gang members who roam the popular entertainment district.

“We will not tolerate this,” Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott said of the violence. He said additional officers will be put in Five Points as a result of the fight and shooting, which the department is still investigating.

City council members had a mixed reaction.

Mayor Steve Benjamin said overall crime is down in Five Points and violent incidents are “increasingly rare.”

Updated crime statistics for the area were not available late Monday.

“By listening to local merchants and residents in the surrounding neighborhoods, we have added more officers, increased patrols and installed nearly 90 security cameras in Five Points,” Benjamin said in an email sent by his aide, Michael Wukela. “Crime is down because our officers are preventing more and more of it, and when an incident can’t be prevented, we respond quickly and in force.”

But two other council members said the area needs more of their attention.

Councilman Cameron Runyan said the city and State Law Enforcement Division need to crack down on the culture of cheap and plentiful alcohol.

“If we’re going to put gads of police officers in the bar district and bankrupt the city trying to police a problem that is symptom of a bigger issue, we’ve got address the cheap, prolific alcohol.”

Police responded quickly to Sunday’s fight, but they had a hard time breaking it up. As officers would separate one group, four more would start fighting, the report said.

Once the crowd realized police were on the scene, they fled in all directions. While people were running away, officers heard the shots fired by a large caliber pistol, and they ran toward the Shell gas station on the 800 block of Harden Street. There, they saw two men fleeing through a parking lot between College and Greene streets. Those men got away, the report said.

September’s outbreak of violence led to a crackdown by Columbia police that included a massive show of force after an Oct. 6 home football game. Benjamin and Police Chief Randy Scott held press conferences to reassure the public, the USC student body president sponsored a student forum to discuss solutions, and customers of Five Points businesses created the Fight Back for 5 Points Facebook page that has more than 6,000 fans.

Five Points typically is busiest on warmer nights and after USC home football games, which was the case in September.

But Sunday was frosty and wet, and no home sporting events were held.

“It was 25 degrees outside, icy and windy,” said City Councilman Moe Baddourah, who represents Five Points. “Nobody thought Five Points was going to be busy. I believe we were wrong. We are going to have to step it up and put more officers on the ground.”

Police did not scale back their normal presence, said Jennifer Timmons, Columbia police spokeswoman.

“CPD is saturating the area,” she said. “Unfortunately, you’re going to have these situations.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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