Richland County’s sheriff said gangs are a growing problem in Columbia’s Five Points entertainment district, and he blamed a single bar that he said was friendly towards gang members.
Sheriff Leon Lott told reporters Wednesday he had sent both uniformed and undercover officers to the area two weeks ago. He said they reported back that one gang is trying to claim the area as its own, looking to fight rival gangs and possibly rob unsuspecting visitors after midnight. Lott said those officers also reported back that a number of gang members were hanging out at a single bar on Five Points’ northern edge. The bar, known as The Library, has previously been cited by Columbia law enforcement as a frequent location for fights and other illegal activity.
The operation came only weeks after a University of South Carolina student was paralyzed by a stray bullet while waiting for a taxi in Five Points. The suspect in the case is a suspected gang member, who investigators believe felt threatened by a rival gang approaching him. The shooting led to a public outcry from students and Columbia residents, demanding law enforcement crack down on violent crime in the area. No violent incidents were reported the night of the operation.
The sheriff said Wednesday the bar needs to close if it’s not willing to crack down on its gang clientele.
“They need to close and they need to cease the type of operations they’re doing right now,” he told reporters. “They are the sore spot in the Five Points area.”
The Library’s owner Justin Kershner defended his bar, saying he was targeted because he owns the sole bar in Five Points with a majority black crowd.
“By targeting my place because I have a predominantly black crowd in my business… what you’re telling me, as an American citizen, is that every black person is a gangster,” he told WLTX-TV. Kershner is white.
Lott said his undercover officers went into Five Points without the knowledge of Columbia Police, who have jurisdiction over the area. Lott said he did not want to navigate the city’s bureaucracy, which would have needed to approve such an operation.
“I don’t have to ask permission,” Lott said. “If it’s a law enforcement function that we need to get done, then we go out and we get it done.”
Columbia’s interim police chief Ruben Santiago joined Lott at Wednesday’s press conference. He said he did not have any issues with the sheriff’s actions.