Lack of ‘Hate Crime’ legislation prevents arrest for hateful videos
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his department consulted with the United States Attorney’s office. A previous version incorrectly stated Lott’s department consulted with the state Attorney General’s office.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott wanted to take further action against a former Cardinal Newman School student who recorded a racist video that imitated killing a black man, but the county’s top lawman said state law wasn’t on his side.
“It is an absolute shame that this state does not have a law against hate crimes,” Lott said. “Look at the turmoil that these videos have caused in our community, the fear that these videos have caused. And there’s nothing as law enforcement that I can do to arrest someone for that, and that’s an absolute shame.”
Thursday, Lott called on the South Carolina Legislature to take action and join 46 other states that have hate crime laws. Lott said he believed a hate crime law would have allowed his department to file further charges against the student, who is unnamed because laws forbid law enforcement from identifying juvenile defendants.
At a news conference, Lott didn’t provide many new details about the case, citing laws that protect juvenile offenders and an ongoing investigation in the case, but he clarified the timeline of events.
On July 13 and 14, Cardinal Newman school officials notified the sheriff’s department about the video one of its student recorded and sent to other students.
In the video, which was recorded in May, the student described himself as a “hater of all black men” and used racial slurs to describe African Americans. He said an object on the ground represented a black man, and he shot it repeatedly with an assault rifle and a shotgun. At the end, he looks at the camera and says: “Thank you for watching my PSA. F--- all n------.”
The student was set to be expelled from Cardinal Newman but his parents withdrew him from school instead, a school official said.
Lott said the sheriff’s department brought the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the case.
On July 15, the school provided deputies with the student’s address. Administrators and Richland investigators contacted the parents of the student in the video. The FBI was informed of the contact.
Department investigators in coordination with the United States Attorney’s office determined that no crime was committed under state law despite the disturbing nature of the video, Lott said.
Then two days later, deputies were informed of a text message, which a police report indicates was sent in May, from the student in the video who threatened to “shoot-up the school,” Lott said. Within about five hours, deputies obtained and executed search warrants, arresting the student and seized about 20 guns from his house. Police charged the student with threatening a school, a law created in 2018.
Typically, once juveniles are charged, they are released to their parents, Lott said. In this case, deputies booked the suspect in the juvenile wing of Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center.
Lott said he could not discuss the status of the juvenile’s case, where he’s staying or where or if he’s going to school.
The sheriff indicated other teens may be charged if the investigation uncovers any crimes. Investigators are probing whether other, similar videos were created by the student. Police are looking into whether the 16-year-old visited white supremacist or far right websites.
“All that is part of the investigation,” Lott said.
In a separate statement released during the news conference, the department said no arrests are pending and that without a hate crime law “that addresses the complacency that enables and encourages this type of conduct, there’s no charge that can be brought against the students.”
The public learned of the videos and the student’s arrest after The State reported on them on Friday.
An arrest normally ends an investigation, at which time the department informs the public, Lott said. But in this case, the investigation continued beyond the arrest.
“After our arrest, we felt the opportunity for any harm to come to any students at Cardinal Newman or anywhere else had been stopped,” Lott said. “And we still feel that way.”
Lott said the student’s arrest felt like a crisis was averted.
As he often does, Lott called for parents to monitor their children’s internet use and to know everything their kids are doing online.
Security at Cardinal Newman is being ratcheted up for the start of the school year, and the sheriff’s department is talking with school officials about hiring extra deputies, Lott said.
“I think this instance opens people’s eyes up to say that it’s not just going to happen in El Paso or Dayton, it can happen here in Columbia, South Carolina,” Lott said.
Still, he encouraged people to live without fear and to have faith in his department.
“The worst thing that we can do is live in fear,” Lott said. “When we live in fear, we allow domestic terrorists and hate crime people, we allow them to control us and impact our lives like that. Be cautious, be concerned but don’t live in fear.”
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
Why is The State covering this incident so closely?
On Friday, August 2, The State reported that a 16-year-old student from a private Catholic school in Richland County was arrested in mid-July after school administrators received information about racist videos and texts circulating among students. Officials said they arrested the student after discovering he threatened to “shoot up the school.” The State believes it’s important to give readers a full understanding, especially for situations in which a potential act of violence against our community members is threatened. As a local news company, we believe the public should know details about the threat as well as the fears and questions of parents, students and others.
Mass shootings are the dominant public safety issue of our time. In less than 24 hours after The State’s story published, a domestic terrorist attack on El Paso residents took over 20 lives. Shortly after, 10 more were taken in a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. History provides a record of people who made videos promoting violence and hatred — like ones made by Charleston shooter Dylann Roof in 2015 — and then carried out violent acts of terror. Similarly, the videos and messages that the 16-year-old Cardinal Newman student is accused of recording and sharing resembled motives that could not be ignored.