DOWNTOWN SAFETY

Richland sheriff: give Five Points pedestrian area a chance?

jmonk@thestate.comOctober 20, 2013 

— Although Five Points businesses seem to have rejected out-of-hand closing off streets to make the area a pedestrian locale on weekend nights, others say there are practical reasons for doing so.

“It’s a good way to keep the bad guys out,” said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who said he is not advocating such a plan, merely mentioning why such a plan might work.

“Limit access, monitor people going in and don’t have cars going in,” Lott said.

Making Five Points a pedestrian mall for several hours each weekend night is one of several “out of the box” ideas making the rounds these days in the wake of last weekend’s random shooting that left a University of South Carolina freshman paralyzed.

Keeping cars away from the many pedestrians that gather in the entertainment district would be a good idea, Lott said. Gun-toting thugs often stash their weapons in passing cars driven by “thug crews,” Lott said. As for thugs on foot with guns, police trained in spotting gang members can be stationed at entry points to see who might be carrying an illegal weapon, he said.

Police would use discretion, and there still would be fairly easy pedestrian access in and out of Five Points, Lott said. That’s the way it’s done in places like New Orleans, Boston and Memphis, he said.

Such a plan would likely comfort law-abiding people, Lott said. Americans are used to the presence of uniformed security personnel at every place from airports to football games, he said.

“Why not give this a try?” asked Lott.

As city police, university administrators and students, government officials and business grapple for solutions, civil liberties groups like the ACLU are keeping tabs on what is done.

“Unquestionably, last weekend’s shooting was a tragedy,” said ACLU of South Carolina president Victoria Middleton. But, she said, “The community should explore ways to prevent violent crimes that do not infringe on the civil liberties of whole groups of people or turn a neighborhood into a militarized zone. “

More community policing, education campaigns, hotlines and similar strategies are worth pursuing, she said.

Some other ideas under discussion are:

• Stop-and-frisk. Lott said that tactic would only be applied with discretion, in the case of an obvious suspicious person. The ACLU opposes the tactic, saying the practice is often applied in a way that discriminates against minorities and as such is “a detriment to community-police relations,” Middleton said.

• Ban saggy pants and other loose clothing. According to the ACLU, bans on certain clothing limit free expression and could be unconstitutional. Any police search of an individual would have to be based on more than clothing alone, Middleton said.

In 2009, former state Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, introduced a bill that would have banned droopy pants. But the bill went nowhere.

Loitering. Citizens have a constitutional right to be in public places, Middleton said. In the past, the ACLU has successfully challenged anti-loitering statutes and ordinances that courts determined were unconstitutionally vague and broad.

• Judges banning criminal suspects from visiting certain locales. According to the ACLU, judges may set some geographic limits on a defendant, such as prohibiting them from going to a victim’s house. But sentencing and probation should not be based on a general profile of a public place, Middleton said.

“A judge does not have the authority to ban someone permanently from a public place,” Middleton said.

Asked about the type of loose checkpoints Lott mentioned, Middleton asked what standards would be in place if police did start to search people.

“Would they have probable cause for searches? “ Middleton said. Police have to take care they don’t abuse pedestrian entry points by adopting practices that lead to “racial and other profiling that would be unconstitutional,” she said.

“Is Five Points really going to turn into a militarized camp?” she said.

Lott, whose officers are working with USC police, Columbia police and some state agents in discussing law enforcement in Five Points, stressed that police presence – not active searches – would be the main ingredient in keeping the peace.

“It’s already proven successful. Every year, we close down Five Points for St. Patrick’s Day. We also have controlled access at the State Fair – we’ve had no major violent incidents at St. Patrick’s, and for some years now at the fair.”

“Look at St. Patrick’s Day – with the number of people drinking down there, we don’t have any problem down there except for intoxicated people,” Lott said. St. Paddy’s crowds number around 30,000 each year.

As a practical matter, Lott said, police would leave a lane of traffic open for emergency vehicles.

In an email last week, Amy Beth Franks, executive director of the Five Points Association, said her group didn’t want to block off streets nor have a 2 a.m. bar closing time because neither approach “addresses the real issue in Five Points – gang violence. “

Franks said her group would welcome the opportunity to share with city officials, city police and USC the reasons why these don’t address Five Points’ “real issues” and suggest other possible solutions.

Lott has considerable experience in gang-related issues. In the early 2000s, while Columbia police and city officials were denying the city had a gang problem, Lott was the only local law official issuing public warnings about gangs such as the Gangsta Killa Bloods running amok in Columbia. Numerous FBI investigations and federal grand jury indictments have long since proved Lott right.

According to the S.C. Department of Transportation, it would be legal to close streets temporarily around Five Points.

“We, along with other interested parties, would have to get to the table and work out a plan,” said Thad Brunson, DOT District 1 engineering administrator.

Brunson said it’s important for the various parties – police, citify officials, emergency services and businesses – to agree on a plan.

One aspect that needs to be looked at, he said, is whether Five Points’ adjoining residential areas can handle any increase in diverted traffic at the times when streets are closed.

Lott said he’s convinced a pedestrian mall is an idea worth exploring.

In any such operation his department participated in, he and the city police would have to work out details, including which officers are stationed where, their missions, how they communicate, who would be in charge and so forth.

“A professional law enforcement agency can’t do things haphazard, without a plan,” Lott said.

Update

A city police spokeswoman said Five Points had a quiet weekend. “No major crimes,” she reported.

News conference

On Monday at 2 p.m. outside Jake’s Bar and Grill in Five Points, representatives of the family of wounded USC student Martha Childress will hold a news conference.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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