After a late-night shooting that injured three people in Columbia's Five Points district early Sunday, business owners and residents around the popular nightlife area are talking again about whether the popular entertainment district has a problem with violent crime.
Two men were in critical condition after the shooting at 2 a.m. Sunday, and another was listed in stable condition. Columbia police were looking for several "persons of interest" seen on surveillance footage of the area.
Some critics see the shooting as just the latest example that Five Points' weekend scene is out of control.
"This demonstrates the atmosphere of lawlessness in Five Points after dark," said Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who is representing two city residents who live near Five Points in challenging the operating permits of two Harden Street bars. Those residents say they are concerned about the impact the growing number of bars has had on the area.
"The city needs to wake up," said Harpootlian, who lives in Wales Garden near Five Points. "It's beginning to resemble Mogadishu."
Tim Smith agrees.
The owner of Papa Jazz, a Greene Street music shop, Smith is the current president of the Five Points Association. Smith thinks some of his fellow business owners need to reconsider how they operate.
"You have seen a lot of over-serving (of alcohol) and underage drinking," Smith said. "There are some people who aren't conducting their business in the right way... You would have to have your head in the sand to say it's not."
Smith thinks part of the answer could be harsher punishments for establishments that break the rules, including having their licenses revoked. "If you take the bad actors off the scene, you wouldn't have these problems."
Steve Cook, the owner of Saluda's Restaurant near Five Points' fountain, notes that there were very few problems during the day Saturday, when the area was filled with revelers for the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration.
"I was down there all day long," he said. "You had thousands of people and very few bad actors."
After last year's St. Patrick's Day celebration, a 22-year-old University of South Carolina student was choked into unconsciousness and had this jaw broken at the Pour House, the former business at the current location of the Roost. Subsequently, the Pour House was shut down.
In another high-profile incident, in October 2013, a USC freshman was struck by a stray bullet and paralyzed while waiting for a cab in Five Points.
Despite a reputation for late-night rowdiness and crime, statistics from the Columbia Police Department show that crime in the entertainment district generally has fallen since 2012. Major assaults fell from 12 to three between 2012 and 2014.
But there was an uptick in assaults last year, when there were 10 assaults, police records show.
Cook says shootings like Sunday's are unpredictable and can occur wherever large numbers of people gather. He noted the same number of people were injured in a Sunday morning shooting on Broad River Road.
"We live in a free and open society, and people can come and go as they please," Cook said. "People have similar fears when they go to the mall or the fair."
April Lucas, who lives in Shandon, is one of the Five Points neighbors challenging some bars' operating permits, arguing many businesses serving alcohol in the entertainment district — some with only nominal food service, she argues — already are in violation of state law.
"It's a joke to call them restaurants because they serve hot dogs or order-in pizza," Lucas said. Restaurants are the only businesses allowed to serve alcohol on their premises under state law.
Harpootlian noted Five Points has 30 bars in a one-mile radius. Coupled with a St. Patrick's Day crowd Saturday that police said was similar to the 80,000-plus who attend a USC football game, the attorney says the mix is too volatile.
The former prosecutor thinks Columbia police are doing what they can in the entertainment district, but the city needs to more tightly enforce restrictions on businesses that serve alcohol, even if it means closing down some bars.
"We don't need more laws, we need more enforcement," Harpootlian said. "The change that needs to happen is with the City Council and the mayor.
"The neighbors had to take the law into their own hands to do what the city or DHEC ought to be doing," Harpootlian said, referring to the residents' legal challenge.
Although there has been no ruling on that challenge yet, Lucas is optimistic the face of Five Points still can change for the better.
"If New York can clean up Times Square, then we can clean up Five Points," she said.