USC president: Columbia’s Five Points district not safe after midnight

ashain@thestate.comOctober 15, 2013 

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    Five Points meeting

    A special community meeting about Five Points security will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Columbia Police Department’s PACE Team headquarters at 1001 Harden St. in the Food Lion shopping center.

  • What happened Tuesday

    USC: President Harris Pastides warned students that Five Points no longer is safe after midnight, asking for increased police patrols.

    City: Council said it will consider ordering bars to close earlier, a move that could empty Five Points earlier.

    State Fair: Raised to 18 the age that youths must be to attend without an adult at night.

    City campus life How three schools in urban areas like the University of South Carolina have tried to help students stay safe:

    College of Charleston: The school shares with students areas that it considers safe and less safe to travel and offers college police escorts, spokesman Mike Robertson said. The college says it also sends constant messages to students, who can think they are invincible, that they are living in an urban environment so “you have to watch everywhere you go,” he said. “Hopefully, it will sink in.”

    Florida State University: The Tallahassee school responded to recent crimes at off-campus sites by having student advocates talk to students about watching out for each other while out, spokeswoman Amy Magnuson said. University police help patrol high-risk areas on weekend nights. “We are surrounded by bars in every direction,” she said. As an alternative, the school offers movies, bowling and parties with free food and music.

    University of Wisconsin: The college in downtown Madison had a rash of robberies and assaults this year. In addition to increased police patrols, the school has held online and Twitter chats, and town-hall meetings to spread safety messages, spokesman John Lucas said. Wisconsin also sent tips to an email group that includes 20,000 parents. The chancellor has blogged about the school’s response to the crimes. “We want parents to be aware and not hear it on 10 o’clock news,” Lucas said.

    Andrew Shain

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    Pastides Q&A University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides spoke to The State about his reaction to the shooting of a freshman from Greenville over the weekend in Five Points:

    What was your first reaction to learning about Martha Childress’ shooting?

    “It has been very painful. I went from shock to extremely sad to angry, frankly. After speaking to the student’s family, two things made me feel this needs to be a turning point. The first is her own hope and desire is that something good can come of this, so I want to work hard. And the second thing is her resolve to return to school. I don’t know that I could do that myself. ... That boosted me up to say, ‘Let me take this anger and do something about it.’ ”

    How would you keep Five Points safe for students since most of the incidents involve people outside the school?

    “The last thing I would call for is a student enclave. I believe the students are enriched by being part of Columbia. The city is enriched by being near the university. The last thing I would call for is kind of keeping good people not affiliated with the university out (of Five Points). But we do want to keep the bad people out.”

    Should underage students go to Five Points at night?

    “I do believe a lot of students go down there not drinking. They’re allowed to have a Coke. They’re allowed to dance. They’re allowed to be with their 21-plus friends. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

    Do you feel Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin shares your sense of urgency about Five Points?

    “Yes. We both view this a turning point for the better. ... We also know there is no way to prevent everything 100 percent of the time. But I think there’s a feeling we all can do better. We’re not going to divide the university from the city and from the county, so I think we will work together.”

    Andrew Shain

Calling it a turning point in a rash of high-profile crimes, University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides said Tuesday the Five Points entertainment district is no longer safe after midnight and called for Columbia to add police patrols to the area after a female student was paralyzed by a stray bullet fired over the weekend.

The Columbia City Council started to act on another of Pastides’ suggestions, agreeing to consider making all bars citywide close at 2 a.m.

Pastides considered asking USC’s 31,000 students to boycott the popular neighborhood hangout of bars, restaurants and shops after meeting on Monday with Martha Childress’ family in the hospital. Pastides said his anger was eased by talking to students and hearing Childress, an 18-year-old freshman, wants to come back to school.

“This has been one of the roughest weeks of my presidency,” said Pastides, who was among the hundreds who attended a Monday vigil. “One person in particular talked about 9/11, and ‘We’re not going to give in to the bad guys. This is our community.’ But I do think students need to have increased confidence that when they go down there, they will be safer.”

Click here to read The State's coverage of Five Points' crime.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said the city and the university have not reached a breaking point over Five Points violence.

“The fortunes and future of the University of South Carolina and the city of Columbia are inextricably intertwined and have been for 212 years,” said Benjamin, a former USC student body president. “And that won’t change.”

USC students and parents as well as Five Points merchants expressed frustration about the violence. The city will hold a special community meeting about Five Points security at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the early Sunday morning shooting led to an age-rule change at the S.C. State Fair. “In response to recent incidents of violence elsewhere in our city,” the fair said it will raise the age of youths who need an adult companion for admission after 7 p.m. to 18 from 16, starting Wednesday.

Since classes started at USC in fall 2012, Five Points has been the scene of at least two stabbings and four incidents of shots fired. A group of female USC students was robbed at gunpoint in April.

Childress was waiting for a taxi on Harden Street in front of the Five Points fountain when she was struck by a stray bullet after two men began arguing at 2:30 a.m., Sunday, authorities said.

The Greenville native was paralyzed. She remains hospitalized at Palmetto Health Richland.

Police arrested Michael Juan Smith – who had avoided long sentences in Richland County courtrooms on two burglary charges in recent years – in connection with the shooting. Smith was released on parole in February after serving 10 months of a two-year sentence for a probation violation, authorities said.

“To me, that’s a failure of that system,” Pastides said.

In a statement issued earlier Tuesday, Pastides called USC students “the economic and social lifeblood of Five Points.”

“However, it is evident that Five Points after midnight is not currently a safe enough place for our students or for anyone,” the statement said. “Today we call on our friends, including the City of Columbia, Richland County, S.C. Law Enforcement Division, Five Points businesses and local neighborhood associations to stand up to better protect USC students and everyone in Five Points.”

Pastides said students are good to go to Five Points during the day to shop and eat. But to improve safety during the evenings, he called for:

•  Requiring all bars to close at 2 a.m.

Most bars already close at 2 a.m., but a few have special licenses that let them remain open longer. City Council agreed Tuesday to ask an attorney to draft an ordinance requiring all bars citywide close at 2 a.m., potentially emptying the Five Points area earlier.

•  Increasing patrols by the Columbia police and adding patrols by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Thursday through Saturday nights.

Richland County does not patrol Five Points now. More-experienced sheriff’s deputies could help spot potential troublemakers, Pastides said.

Interim Columbia police chief Ruben Santiago said Tuesday that he asked for help in Five Points from SLED and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department before the school year started. SLED has added plain-clothes agents who work on alcohol-related violations inside bars, allowing Columbia police to concentrate on incidents outside the bars.

Santiago said he had received no commitment from Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Efforts to reach Lott were unsuccessful Tuesday.

•  Making Five Points a pedestrian district on Friday and Saturday nights to ease crowding on sidewalks. Now, sidewalks become congested with bar customers who step outside to smoke and large groups of revelers hopping from bar to bar.

•  Installing new lighting and call boxes in Five Points and the surrounding areas.

Columbia has responded to recent crime in Five Points by setting up a police substation in the district in May. Authorities also added surveillance cameras and made a teen curfew permanent in 2011.

Benjamin agreed more lighting is needed.

USC also will look at promoting activities for students on weekend nights as entertainment alternatives to Five Points, Pastides said. The school has no definitive plans, though Pastides said he envisions activities on fields near the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center with food and music.

“We are very nervous about Five Points,” Dennis Pruitt, USC’s vice president for student affairs, said Tuesday.

Benedict College, also located near Five Points, has no plans to issue warnings to its 3,000 students, college president David Swinton said Tuesday. He said Benedict shares safety tips with students, who he expects will go to the closest entertainment and dining area to campus no matter what school leaders say.

Staff reporters Clif LeBlanc and Noelle Phillips contributed.

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