Crime & Courts

Chief: Columbia officer’s actions ‘proper’ when punches thrown in Five Points

Police officer punches suspect repeatedly during arrest

Video shows a member of the Columbia Police Department punching a suspect while trying to restrain him over the weekend in Five Points.
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Video shows a member of the Columbia Police Department punching a suspect while trying to restrain him over the weekend in Five Points.

Columbia’s police chief says an officer’s actions were proper after a suspect was punched during an arrest in Five Points over the weekend.

Chief Skip Holbrook said an internal review determined an officer followed protocol in subduing a 21-year-old man during an arrest on Devine Street about 2 a.m. Sunday. Holbrook said the officer believed the suspect was trying to break the officer’s wrist.

The video shows a Columbia police officer punching a suspect in the head multiple times while pressing him against a vehicle.

In the video posted on Facebook Sunday morning, another man in street clothes who identifies himself as a “cop” comes to assist the officer in taking the suspect to the ground, and both men put their knees in the suspect’s back to pin him to the ground, video shows.

Then the officer in uniform places his knee on the suspect’s head, mashing it into the pavement to subdue the man, who had pulled his right arm free, the video shows.

“Why are they punching this guy when that had him contained against a car?” Isaac Wilson, the man who posted the video to Facebook, asked in a Monday interview with The State.

On Monday afternoon, Holbrook told media the officer was on foot patrol in Five Points when he stopped the suspect and another man who were illegally crossing the street at the intersection of Devine and Harden streets. When the officer attempted to guide the man back to the sidewalk, video from a street camera shows the man breaking away and attempting to flee down the street, Holbrook said Monday.

The officer punched the suspect six times in the head after the man grabbed the officer’s wrist.

“He said in the incident report he thought he was trying to break his wrist,” Holbrook said.

Once the suspect was taken to the ground, Holbrook said the officer followed procedure by placing his knee on the suspect’s upper back. The knee slipped off and the officer placed it back on the suspect, but temporarily misplaced it on the suspect’s neck. The officer quickly moved the knee to the man’s upper back to hold him down, Holbrook said.

The officer’s status remains normal with the department, Holbrook said. The suspect was charged with resisting arrest, failure to obey a police command, and being unlawfully in a roadway.

Holbrook said the department has not received a complaint about the officer’s actions, but the department conducted a review based solely on the video from social media.

Wilson, the man who shared the video on Facebook, said the occurred at about 2 a.m., between Yesterday’s Restaurant & Tavern and Men’s Wearhouse, at the intersection of Harden and Devine streets.

“We were coming out of one of the bars and started hearing a commotion. I saw a young guy running and police running after him,” Wilson said.

The student resisted the officer who was attempting to restrain him, but he never tried to strike the officer, according to Wilson.

“When the officer had his head against his neck, I could hear him say ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’ But they did not release him immediately,” Wilson said. “I thought it was inappropriate and despicable by law enforcement.”

The University of South Carolina issued a statement after reviewing the video.

“The university is aware of several videos circulating on social media that depict incidents involving law enforcement officers and young people that may or not be UofSC students,” university spokesman Jeff Stensland said in the statement. “We are currently working with the agencies to determine the facts of the incidents and whether any of our students were involved. If they are students, the Office of Student Conduct will determine what appropriate intervention should occur.”

Five Points is near the downtown Columbia area and the university, with several bars and restaurants. It is a popular destination, especially with University of South Carolina students.

After a 17-year-old girl was shot in Five Points in August, Holbrook addressed the issue of violence in the area, particularly involving students and minors.

“We’ve got to find something besides putting under-aged kids on a bus and driving them to Five Points,” he said. “That is going to be the downfall of the whole village.”

After that incident, Stensland said school officials were concerned about safety in areas where students gather, and were working with the Columbia Police Department to improve safety.

The August shooting came on the heels of the March abduction and murder of USC student Samantha Josephson, who got in what she though was an Uber driver’s car in Five Points.

Wilson said the police presence in Five Points is noticeable and not “friendly.”

“Not too many people are thrilled to have them down there, people don’t feel safe in Five Points,” said the Morris College alum who works as a community activist in the Florence area.

Holbrook described Five Points as “volatile.”

“It’s hazardous. You see a disregard for the rules of the road, and we do everything we can to keep kids safe there.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian speaks about why now is the the right time for revamping the Five Points area of Columbia.

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Noah Feit is a Real Time reporter with The State and McClatchy Carolinas Regional Team. The award-winning journalist has worked for multiple newspapers since starting his career in 1999.