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September 26, 2012

40 officers to patrol Five Points after next South Carolina home game

Upset by continuing violence in Five Points, city leaders are planning to nearly double the police presence during USC’s next home football game, and longer-range crackdowns could include police dogs, street closings and a no-exceptions 2 a.m. bar closing.

Calls for tougher action are being driven by last weekend’s particularly violent outbreak which included a random firing of a gun and two mob fights – fanned by a Facebook and YouTube video of one of the beatings that further inflamed anger.

Councilman Cameron Runyan said he fears the city will have “blood on its hands” if officials don’t find a way to curb the violence before someone is killed.

The Columbia Police Department reported that violent crime jumped 22 percent by mid-September compared with the same period last year. Those 39 additional offenses did not include last weekend’s outbreak.

Overall crime in Five Points, however, was down by 26 percent to 728 offenses during that 81/2-month period that ended Sept. 12.

Chief Randy Scott said Tuesday that 40 officers will patrol the entertainment district after the Oct. 6 game between the No. 6-ranked Gamecocks and No. 5-ranked conference rival Georgia.

His department has spent $90,000 in overtime pay in Five Points so far this year, including 22 officers who patrolled after Saturday’s home game win against the University of Missouri, Scott said.

He has not yet decided whether to send drug- and gun-sniffing dogs or to close streets immediately around the Five Points fountain after USC home games , as Councilman Moe Baddourah supports.

Scott held a nearly hour-long news conference Tuesday in Five Points where he vowed that illegal behavior will not be tolerated. When he became chief three years ago, Scott and his command staff spent a lot of time on improving safety in Five Points.

“It’s time to set that tone again,” he said.

The city has tried to control underage drinking and other offenses in the past few years by imposing a teen curfew in Five Points, allowing bars to stay open after 2 a.m. if they meet upgraded security and apply other restraints; and creating a “hospitality team” that enforces drinking laws and city codes in entertainment districts across Columbia.

The 7 p.m. kickoff for the Georgia game will add to his department’s challenge, Scott said. Crowds always are larger and more rowdy after night games because they have been tailgating for hours before the games.

Scott openly mulled cracking down on people who stand outside bars holding drinks. Since the city’s smoking ban, police have been lenient toward people who step outside to smoke with their drinks in hand.

“You can’t be outside with a cup,” he said. “Once you step out from the awning, you’re mine.”

Scott also plans to ask City Council about toughening loitering laws.

While many of the department’s critics say police are misguided in their focus on underage drinking, Scott said he will not soften his stance.

Merritt McHaffie, director of the Five Points Association, stood by Scott’s side Tuesday. “We’re concerned and we want to work with the police to solve it,” she said.

USC spokesman Wes Hickman said the university for years has increased on-campus patrols by its 67-person police force during football games. USC police have backed up Columbia police when city officers request help. USC has no plans at this time to routinely increase patrols in Five Points or in adjoining neighborhoods, Hickman said.

Runyan favors a mandatory 2 a.m. bar closing, saying bar owners are selling alcohol late into the night and drunken customers then cause problems or become crime victims. “Take the alcohol out of Five Points and people won’t get shot,” he said. “That’s the signal (to bar owners). You all need to get this under control.”

He said he might push for a midnight closing time for bars. That could further strain relations with Five Points businesses, which recently clashed with the city over citations issued by the hospitality team.

But others on council said they are not yet ready for a bar-closing crackdown.

Council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Sam Davis said they are concerned about the amount of police resources the city already is spending in one part of Columbia.

“You can’t dump all the resources in one area,” Davis said.

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