COLUMBIA, SC — Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott sent his gang and narcotics units into Five Points on Saturday night to conduct a surprise operation without informing city officials beforehand.
Lott said he did not coordinate with interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago because the city’s police chief does not have authority to participate without getting permission from multiple bosses. It is the first time Lott has openly criticized the city government’s management structure and bureaucracy that the police chief works within.
“If we had worked with Ruben Santiago, he would have had to ask permission from all the people over him, and word would have gotten out,” Lott said.
Lott’s unannounced operation comes as violence continues to plague the city’s popular nightlife area. The public outcry over shootings, fights, robberies and other crimes reached a tipping point last month when Martha Childress, an 18-year-old USC freshman, was paralyzed after being hit by a random bullet. Merchants, the university and community leaders have asked the sheriff’s department to get involved, and Lott had told Santiago he would help if the police chief would make a formal request.
Lott held a news conference Wednesday to describe the tactics his officers used and to offer some information on what those officers learned about gang activity in Five Points. He was joined by Santiago and Chris Wuchenich, director of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Public Safety.
Undercover deputies and deputies wearing badges roamed Five Points in pairs, focusing on dark areas and one club that Lott named as a known gang hangout.
A gang with national reach has claimed Five Points as its territory, Lott said. Members flood the area after midnight to start fights and hunt people to rob. Rival gangs also come into the area to try to stake their claims, he said.
Lott named The Library, a bar near the corner of Harden and Greene streets, as the central hangout for the gang. His deputies recognized known gang members and saw them wearing colors and doing other things that showed their membership, he said.
But The Library’s owner, Justin Kershner, said his club was being targeted because it is a hangout for young black people.
“I’m the only person in Five Points that allows young black kids to come in, whether it’s USC, Benedict or Allen,” Kershner said. “If you pass the dress code and you come in to have fun, dance, spend money and do everything every other college kid or every other American has a right to do, I’m not going to turn you away, because I’m not a racist.”
Lott said he also coordinated with the S.C. Department of Corrections to send notice to 98 youthful offenders in Richland County that they had a 9 p.m. curfew in Five Points. The 20-year-old who was arrested in last month’s shooting of Childress was out of prison because of the Youthful Offender Act.
The corrections department also sent officers to Five Points on Friday night to help identify youthful offenders, but none were found, Lott said.
Deputies arrested a handful of people on crack cocaine and marijuana charges, Lott said.
After midnight Saturday, Lott’s uniformed deputies set up two traffic checkpoints on Harden Street. That cut down cruising and allowed deputies to see who was coming and going in the area. He specifically cited the checkpoint as something that Santiago would not be able to do without permission from higher-ups at City Hall.
Lott said he wanted to demonstrate how law enforcement could take back control of Five Points, and he hopes Santiago and USC police follow the plan.
Lott said city officials need to get out of Santiago’s way and let him do what is necessary in Five Points.
Richland County deputies have other responsibilities and could not become a permanent fixture in Five Points, Lott said.
City manager Teresa Wilson said Santiago has authority to do his job.
“The police chief doesn’t need my permission to do his job in a fair, equitable and just manner across the city,” Wilson said.
But Mayor Steve Benjamin said the sheriff was correct in his assessment of the police department’s management, saying Santiago had to get permission from the city manager, assistant city manager and even city council members before making decisions.
He used the sheriff’s criticism as an opportunity to push for a strong mayor form of government. A referendum on that will be held Dec. 3.
“In fact, Chief Santiago couldn’t even hire his own command staff until the assistant city manager and city manager signed off,” Benjamin wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a bad way to run a government and an even worse way to keep people safe.”
As for Santiago, he sidestepped questions about whether city officials undermine his authority and said his department will continue to evaluate tactics and adapt to the needs in Five Points.
He said he appreciated the sheriff recognizing the issues and helping.
“We want to set a tone, and once we set a tone, we want to maintain it,” Santiago said.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.