Aside from a shoving match outside a Harden Street bar, a disruptive man who refused to leave another bar, and a drunk woman who fell and hit her head on the pavement while dancing on a table, a recent Friday night in Five Points was quiet.
But Lt. Daniel Wesley and the other Columbia police officers who patrol Five Points never use the “q-word” to describe Friday and Saturday nights in the popular entertainment district. Still, he admits, “we’ve been having a lot of those.”
Throughout the night, a few people were seen stumbling to the ground and being helped up by friends. There was a fender-bender at one intersection, and tipsy pedestrians scurried through crosswalks to the displeasure of drivers who had a green light.
“This is how it is every weekend,” Wesley said, driving a patrol car past scores of patrons waiting in lines to get into bars along Harden Street. “People come, you get a crowd, they do what they’re doing now. And then they fan out, get in their cars and go home.”
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Still, like the faint aroma of stale beer, a reputation for violence lingers in Five Points for residents like Michael Morgan, 69, who lives four blocks away and has been a “pretty good, loyal” patron of the district’s businesses for nearly 40 years.
“It’s not as safe as it used to be,” Morgan said, sitting outside Delaney’s Music Pub on Saluda Avenue on a recent Monday evening. “I was a young person. I graduated from USC three times. It’s just that, I think the criminal element has become more serious than they ever have before. You’ve got to be cautious.”
One street over, outside Goat’s restaurant and bar on Devine Street, 37-year-old Bruce Lawrence said he also lives near Five Points and feels safe coming to the area several times a week for coffee, lunch or drinks.
“We bought a house two blocks up the street and knew the area very well before then, so we knew what we were getting into,” he said. “I think it definitely has a crime reputation. It got bad for a while a couple of years ago, and ... at least the appearance seems to be that it’s gotten better.”
Crime statistics from the Columbia Police Department show that crime generally has fallen since 2012 but has increased slightly in recent years. For example, major assaults fell from 12 to three between 2012 and 2014 but increased to 10 last year.
Still, at Pawleys Front Porch on Harden Street, owner Kirkman Finlay III said the perception of the urban village is that it’s dangerous.
“When the sun goes down, people get uncomfortable,” said Finlay, who manages three other restaurants and also is a state representative. “There just seems to be thuggish behavior after dark. Whether that is someone being shot or beat up – it’s a litany of struggles.
“Twenty years ago, you knew you might get in a fight,” he said. “You didn’t think you would get shot.”
Perception vs. reality
A Columbia police officer since 2003, Wesley knows Five Points has a reputation for crime. But, it’s a reputation that Wesley and police Chief Skip Holbrook say is undeserved.
The problem isn’t really crime, Holbrook said.
“Five Points has a crime perception problem,” he said. “As a whole and based on the increased number of patrons that visit this area for entertainment, it has a low percentage of criminal activity. On any given weekend, the city’s entertainment districts are well staffed with officers, and depending upon the season or public event, officers will be on foot patrol in plain clothes, in addition to regular vehicular patrol.”
The October 2013 shooting of University of South Carolina student Martha Childress, which followed a spate of nighttime shootings and robberies in the Five Points area, was a tipping point for a new focus on safety in the district. Childress, then an 18-year-old freshman, was paralyzed from the waist down when a stray bullet struck her spine as she waited with friends to catch a taxi after a concert.
Since then, a club in the heart of Five Points that was considered a hub of gang activity closed; law enforcement has modified its patrols and policing practices; additional street lighting has been added; and USC resumed its shuttle bus service to transport students to and from campus.
‘It was out of control’
A Harden Street club called The Library was the epicenter of an ongoing gang war that came to a head with Childress getting shot, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, whose agency is on a countywide gang unit with Columbia police and USC police.
“It was out of control,” Lott said of the violence that plagued Five Points in the years before the shooting. “You had different gang factions down there that wanted to control Five Points, so that created the war that they had and ended up with Martha Childress getting caught in the crossfire.”
The shooting led to an unannounced operation by undercover deputies at The Library weeks later, and they determined it was a central hangout for gangs. The club closed and later reopened under a different name before closing permanently in May 2014. Breaker’s now occupies the building at the corner of Harden and Greene streets.
“Once The Library was closed, it was a change almost between night and day,” Lott said. “We saw a huge reduction in gang activity in the Five Points area.”
Lott said the area had a reputation for violence but shouldn’t today.
“I don’t think it’s there now,” he said. “They did have a period of time where it changed and was very dangerous there. You still have isolated incidents, but it’s nothing compared to what it was five years ago.”
Holbrook said police respond and investigate “anytime there is a hint of gang activity in Five Points or other areas” of the city.
“It’s important that we as a law enforcement agency monitor and respond accordingly,” he said. “We have not experienced a prevalent gang problem in Five Points.”
Policing a college bar district
Young people come to Five Points to drink. Columbia police know this.
And, in patrolling the area, they try to strike a balance between keeping safe the young patrons who are enjoying themselves while holding them accountable when they break the law.
After Holbrook’s arrival at Columbia police in 2014, the department reviewed and revamped its practices in entertainment districts, focusing on what is known as the “guardian versus warrior mentality,” according to Holbrook.
“This philosophy ensures that officers are approachable to foster open, fair and impartial community interactions and engagements,” Holbrook said. Included in those engagements are educational meetings with students and groups, including Operation Fall Semester for incoming freshmen or new students. This series of discussions sets the tone for student behavior and consequences, off-campus fraternity and sorority housing, and state and local laws.
In addition to the university starting the shuttle, Columbia police established taxi stands at certain points in Five Points, where students can wait for a taxi or taxi drivers can wait for a fare. The fountain in the middle of the district, where Childress was shot, is one of those points. At least two patrol cars are parked there on Friday and Saturday nights, with most of the officers patrolling the area on foot.
Wesley, the police lieutenant, knows officers can’t patrol all parts of the city the same way, and said working the Five Points beat requires more of a “guardian” mentality.
“You can’t arrest away your problems,” Wesley said. “You can’t just go and put everybody in jail for every little violation if they don’t know (the law).”
That includes the heavier nights, when the sidewalks quickly thicken with patrons after the bars close.
“We kind of walk behind them and make sure they’re steady moving, that they’re getting in their cars and leaving,” Wesley said. “We don’t have them caking up in the road. You’ll have your stragglers that kind of hang around so they can have that last-minute talk.”
Throughout the night, city officers conduct “bar checks” to make sure bars are not over capacity and to look for underage drinkers. State Law Enforcement Division agents assist police in addressing underage drinking, and often conduct their own undercover operations in Five Points.
Five Points crime by the numbers
The State newspaper requested statistics from the Columbia Police Department for offenses in the Five Points area from 2012 to 2017, focusing on the different levels of assault and battery, robbery and vehicle break-in cases along Harden Street, Devine Street, Greene Street and Saluda Avenue.
The number of first-degree assault and battery cases dropped after 2012 but have risen steadily in recent years, to 10 in 2017. First-degree assaults include attempted murder, assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm and throwing bodily fluids.
Second-degree assault and battery cases dropped from seven in 2012 to five in 2013, but increased to 14 in 2016. That number dropped to seven in 2017.
Armed robberies dropped steadily from nine in 2012 to two in 2014 and 2015. That number increased to four in 2016 and inched down to three in 2017.
“The number of patrons in this area will also be directly affected by the increases in student populations, which have consistently increased from USC and subsequently off-campus housing options in surrounding neighborhoods,” Holbrook said. “When this high concentration of bars and increasing population of patrons comes together, and also both increase over time, it would be fair to say that criminal activity such as fights, assaults and larcenies will rise as these numbers rise.”
USC study on Five Points
After the Childress shooting, a team of researchers at USC began collecting data to come up with recommendations to reduce violence in Five Points.
Led by criminal justice professor Leslie Wiser, who previously was an assistant Columbia police chief and FBI agent, the team of USC graduate students concluded there was a need for better enforcement of alcohol laws, a better diversity of activities to bring people to hospitality districts, and better communication between government, police, business owners and the university.
The study echoed what law enforcement officials told The State regarding how drinking too much can make college-age patrons vulnerable to criminals. Additionally, the report found that the percentage of first-year USC students drinking in bars – the vast majority of them underage – nearly tripled from 2012 to 2014, from 14 percent to 39 percent.
Wiser called the finding “alarming” while testifying during a hearing last month on whether The Roost in Five Points should be given a permanent state liquor license. Columbia attorney Tom Gottshall is president of the University Hill Neighborhood Association, which is contesting the alcohol permit applications for The Roost and Rooftop.
“They’re often intoxicated, so they’re also the victims of an element which comes into Five Points and inhabits areas where bar density is higher and they’re attractive targets,” Gotshall told The State newspaper.
Residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Five Points are interested in reducing the “bar density” in the district and getting the city to repeal an ordinance that allows bars to stay open past 2 a.m., Gottshall said. They say this will cut down not only on the students making themselves vulnerable to crime, but also on the amount of alcohol-fueled shenanigans that take place in the residential areas surrounding Five Points.
During a recent hearing on the proposed bar curfew, Kit Smith, a former Richland County Council member who lives in Wales Garden and leads the Coalition of Five Points Neighborhoods, called the district “an attractive nuisance.”
“The Five Points area has got sharks swimming in it,” she said at the time. “These are not the bars themselves. These are the people who are attracted there to prey on the children,” or the drunk college students who become victims of crimes such as rape and thefts.
Holbrook said opportunities for crime do exist in the area.
“In Five Points, the concerns focus on gross overconsumption of alcohol by young people causing heavy impairment and poor decision-making,” he said. “Criminals will go to places where they can find victims and/or believe they won’t get caught.”
A bar curfew isn’t the sole answer, but it’s a step in the right direction, Gottshall said.
“The city is substantially responsible for the problem that we have,” he said. “The city enables these alcohol outlets/bars to remain open longer than other cities like us. They have permitted a density to accumulate, which is out of line.”
‘They get the blame’
When a USC student is charged with a crime, Columbia police notify USC’s Division of Law Enforcement and Safety, according to Holbrook.
Although they are state constables – and therefore have statewide jurisdiction – USC police officers do not regularly patrol the college bar district, even as the university’s population continues to swell.
“We have 350-plus acres of USC that require our full attention,” said Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs, vice provost and dean of students. “The best thing we can do is make sure the USC campus doesn’t require anybody else to come to us so they can police the other areas (of the city).
“Where aid is needed, we assist,” he said.
Wesley notes that Allen University and Benedict College are less than a mile up Harden Street from Five Points, and that not everyone hitting the bars on a Friday or Saturday night is a college student.
“The first time a young individual 21 or 22 years old gets into trouble, automatically it’s ‘Oh, that USC student,’” he said. “Then we find out they don’t even go to college. They (USC) get the blame when the person has no ties to the school.”
Gottshall, too, was hesitant to place the blame on USC.
“Some want to blame the university,” he said. “The university is really the economic engine of Columbia. Do we want the university to stop teaching students?”
‘More of a perception than a reality’
Some business owners were incredulous when asked about crime in Five Points.
“I’ve been working here for 40 years and never had a problem,” said Duncan McRae, owner of Yesterdays Restaurant and Tavern. “I think it’s a college area, but it’s not a combat zone.”
When Michael Duganier wanted to open a restaurant in Columbia, everyone told him to “go to the Vista.” Instead, he opened Publico Kitchen + Tap on Greene Street in 2015.
“Everyone said (Five Points) was a college-y area” and described it as dangerous, he said. “And we still chose to go in there and we have no issues.”
Don McCallister has been in business for 25 years at Loose Lucy’s on Saluda Avenue, and said he’s never felt unsafe in Five Points; however, he acknowledged he usually is there during the day.
“Every now and then, there’s some sort of high-profile event in Five Points that the media parks on for days and days on end,” he said. “That does color the perception for the neighborhood. When somebody says to me, ‘That Five Points – y’all have all this crime down there,’ I think it is more of a perception than a reality.”
As Lt. Daniel Wesley heads up Blossom Street in his patrol car around 1 a.m. on a Saturday, he notes that people had similar concerns about the Vista being “crime-ridden” after a September shootout between rival groups injured eight people.
“I think Five Points will get out of that perception, that stigma of being a violent area,” he said. “The more and more we keep doing what we’re doing, everybody’s communicating to see it for what it is.
“It’s not crime-ridden,” he continued. “Does crime happen? Yeah. But, you know, Five Points is not picked out to be picked on when it comes to criminal activity.”
Reporters Sarah Ellis and Jeff Wilkinson contributed.
About this series
Five Points’ Identity Crisis examines the challenges confronting the urban village next to the University of South Carolina campus. Some fear a growing number of college bars threatens the character of the community. Look for stories daily in The State through Wednesday and at thestate.com.
Saturday: Five Points at a crossroads
Sunday: Lust, long lines and liquor towers: How Five Points lights up after dark. Plus, how easy is it for underage students to get a fake ID?
Today: How dangerous is Five Points?
Tuesday: The urban village has a wide range of businesses, from record stores to swanky restaurants. Is that changing?
Wednesday: Five things that must change in Five Points