COLUMBIA, SC — The Columbia Police Department is on the verge of a shift in strategy on how to manage late-night crowds in Five Points, the city’s popular late-night destination.
Rather than busting college kids for fake IDs and underage drinking, police will be focusing on gangs and unlawful weapons on the streets, according to a new plan presented Tuesday at City Council’s public safety committee meeting. That doesn’t mean police will overlook underage drinking and other alcohol-related problems, said interim chief Ruben Santiago.
“We’re not neglecting it, but my focus is the violent crime that has caused fear in Five Points,” Santiago said.
On Tuesday, residents on the city’s revitalized hospitality zone task force offered five recommendations to the committee for improving safety in Five Points, which has been the scene of several high-profile violent crimes in recent years.
The task force was created in 2010 to design a plan for enforcing laws, fire codes and zoning ordinances in the city’s entertainment districts. But it had been dormant for most of 2012. The group has mostly new members, including John Durst, president of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, who leads the task force and presented the plan.
The recommendations will become formalized once the hospitality zone task force and neighborhood associations around Five Points sign off on the plan.
The task force is recommending:
• Adding more signs around Five Points warning people that they are under video surveillance
• Formalizing a multi-disciplinary hospitality zone public safety team with members from Columbia Police Department, Richland County Sheriff’s Department, SLED and the public safety departments from neighboring universities and colleges
• Increasing the number of officers patrolling neighborhoods adjacent to Five Points, especially in early morning weekend hours
• Ensuring that police have a culture that stresses getting gangs and guns off the streets, with enforcing alcohol violations as a secondary priority
• Having regular meetings among police, Five Points Association members and representatives from nearby neighborhoods to evaluate safety and related issues.
The hospitality public safety team also would include fire marshals, business license officials and zoning inspectors who would monitor parking and other issues.
Tuesday’s discussion focused on Five Points, but task force members, City Council members and Santiago insisted they had not forgotten about other areas of the city.
“It seemed to be headed to a critical point with football season coming up,” said Kathryn Fenner, a University Hill neighborhood association board member and task force member. “We know the Vista gets it, too, but it doesn’t have the same issues as Five Points.”
Under the direction of former police chief Randy Scott, police focused on underage drinking, fake IDs and other problems that come with a college party scene. The out-of-control drinking made young people vulnerable targets for those looking to cause trouble, Scott said.
That policing strategy created tension between bar owners and their customers, who said the police had misguided priorities.
Crime in Five Points has dropped in the past year, according to statistics Santiago cited during the meeting.
“We’re encouraged with the numbers, but we want to make sure people feel safe,” he said.
Santiago has increased the number of officers patrolling Five Points on weekends. The officers wear reflective yellow vests and walk in pairs on each block.
For now, Santiago said he has the money in his budget to pay for the extra police. But if his plan sticks, he would need more money.
As for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department’s participation, Lott said he has spoken with the task force and the Five Points Association. But he said he would only send deputies to Five Points if the city asked for their help and only if their mission was to crack down on gangs and guns.
On Tuesday, neighbors and business owners seemed pleased with the new plan.
Joe Wilson, who owns three bars in Five Points, said it has taken years for police, neighbors and the various business interests to develop a good relationship.
“It has been a lot of years with people bringing up the same things over and over and over,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to see this derailed.”
Reporter Clif LeBlanc contributed. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.