Columbia, SC — IT’S TIME TO face the reality about Five Points: While the most recent fight — followed by stray gun shots — in the urban district is unacceptable and reprehensible, it was not surprising and, I dare say, should be expected.
While some folks have chosen to criticize Columbia police, suggesting authorities are focused on underage drinking instead of cracking down on gang activity in the area, the fact is that much of Five Points’ problem is alcohol-induced, and the best law enforcement officers and even restaurant and bar owners themselves can hope to do is keep the violence at a minimum.
Yes, the district has had problems with youth and gang violence. But its ills also include under-age and irresponsible drinking, a glut of fake IDs, assaults, DUIs and traffic violations.
It all serves as evidence of a sober reality: The glut of bars and restaurants in Five Points has created an atmosphere that invites a certain amount of crime and lawlessness. This isn’t just about Five Points. The same holds true for any entertainment district congregated by drinking establishments and touting a big-time party atmosphere. Study after study has found that areas with a high concentration of alcohol establishments tend to have higher violent crime rates.
Without a doubt, Five Points leaders and city officials are right to be ever-vigilant about addressing the crime and violence. But no one should kid themselves that all of Five Points’ problems are caused by outside influences. It’s equally naive to believe that police can totally tame an area saturated by businesses that, when combined at a high density, create a fertile environment for a bevy of routine crimes that could explode violently at any moment, and without notice.
We’ve reached a point where every time something serious happens in Five Points, Columbia police are expected to increase already-beefed-up patrols and ratchet up already-intensified efforts to crack down on crime.
The fact is that the city has made Five Points a priority over the past couple of years. It has sought to get bars to stop serving alcohol after 2 a.m., enacted a teen curfew and installed more security cameras. The police department has responded to incidents in the area by increasing officers’ presence on more than one occasion.
And, for the most part, Five Points violence seemed to have been put in check since a violent weekend in September that included two fights involving large groups. But last weekend, eight to 10 shots were fired along Harden Street not long after police broke up a brawl involving 15 to 20 men near two bars at the Harden and Greene streets intersection. No one was injured.
Not surprisingly — but understandably — Five Points supporters, shaken and angered by the violence, looked for police to act.
And Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott made it clear that he intended to respond. The chief, who declared, “We will not tolerate this,” said even more officers would be dispatched to Five Points.
Chief Scott said what he was expected and supposed to say. But the truth is that violence is going to occur in Five Points from time to time. And while Chief Scott’s reaction might always be to put more officers on it and crack down, city police can’t address this issue alone.
Restaurant and bar owners are going to have to do more to protect their patrons and heighten awareness about the need to take precautions. And patrons must heed the warnings; they must understand that it’s not safe to be alone anywhere late at night or early in the morning drinking, let alone in an area that has had its bouts with violence.
The saying that nothing good happens after midnight seems appropriate here. Yes, Five Points is a neat, inviting place to go shop and eat during the day. But it can be a very different place late at night and in the wee hours of the morning, as the crowd grows, alcohol flows and people of all stripes come together, some of whom are seeking to make trouble. The potential for crime and lawlessness is immeasurable.
Don’t get me wrong; police presence can make a difference. Mayor Steve Benjamin told The State through a spokesman that overall crime has declined and violent incidents are “increasingly rare” in Five Points. He said that city officials listened to local merchants and residents and “have added more officers, increased patrols and installed nearly 90 security cameras in Five Points.”
But Councilman Cameron Runyan put his finger on the problem when he noted that the city and State Law Enforcement Division need to crack down on the culture of cheap and plentiful alcohol in the bar district.
By nature, bar districts breed crime. One study, conducted in Minneapolis, Minn., and released last year, found a correlation between the congregation of bars and restaurants that sell alcohol and an increase in assault, rape, robbery and total violent crime. The study, by Traci L. Toomey, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, suggested that leaders should limit the density of alcohol establishments within their communities.
That raises some difficult questions. What’s the likelihood of Columbia capping the number of drinking establishments in Five Points? Would it ever consider trying to reduce the existing number? Or do the city and community members accept Five Points for what it is?
I’m not saying this community should throw its hands up and admit defeat. But I am saying that the answer to violence in Five Points isn’t simply to flood the streets with police under the order to lock up suspected gang members.
It’s questionable whether we can ever truly solve the problem, but we certainly can’t manage violence in Five Points without first admitting that we have an alcohol problem, which includes underage and irresponsible drinking. If we can get control of the alcohol problem, we stand a better chance of controlling the mayhem that often comes with it.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.