Thursday night’s football season opener will serve as the first test of an expanded public safety net the city is extending in its entertainment districts.
The USC game against Texas A&M will be the first time students descend on Five Points since the city and university announced a plan to upgrade taxi cab and shuttle services to transport students back to their dorms or to off-campus homes.
The sold-out game also is likely to result in a flood of students from the new high-rise housing complex on Main Street as well as visiting Aggie fans – all filling Vista and city center streets, restaurants and bars.
Columbia police are teaming with the state prison system to enforce a daily 10 p.m. curfew to keep young offenders out of the Vista and the Main Street quadrant for the first time. Until now, the curfew – first imposed last year – applied only in Five Points, Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling said.
Anyone on probation for other state offenses has been barred from Five Points altogether at night since last year.
In other preparations, about a dozen Columbia police officers have been equipped with new, body-worn surveillance cameras to record their encounters with the public. They began foot patrols last week in entertainment districts, chief Skip Holbrook said.
Further, the police department is expanding the use of state constables to bolster manpower in the three downtown districts, police said.
In addition, a slightly enlarged corp of civilian yellow shirt ambassadors will be out to help manage growing crowds in the 36-block area around Main Street, said Matt Kennell, director of City Center Partnership.
Columbia police will resume the practice of sending officers to smooth traffic flow along Assembly Street before and after the 6 p.m. kickoff. Officers will override traffic signals at six intersections from College to Whaley streets, deputy chief Melron Kelly said. Police also are positioned to manage crowds associated with Benedict College’s Palmetto Classic football game Saturday afternoon, Kelly said.
The University of South Carolina police department will have more of an on-campus presence and will soon launch a smartphone app that would permit students to link directly to USC police, use alert buttons to report suspicious people or events and designate emergency contacts, university spokesman Wes Hickman said. The campus has been upset by two gun incidents, a strong-arm robbery and a flasher – all within a week.
All the game preparations are reinforced by the addition of more fixed security cameras in the entertainment and business districts in recent weeks, police report.
Holbrook will not say how many officers will be working Thursday night. But he said the police presence will include uniform, traffic and plainclothes officers, including some from the drug and gang units. USC also will use uniform and undercover officers.
GETTING HOME SAFELY
The city and university launched seven designated pickup sites in Five Points at the beginning of the school year. The season opener will be the first big test of the plan designed to get revelers – not just USC students – home safely, especially if they’ve had too much to drink.
The campus transportation department is posting people at its designated sites along Saluda Avenue at The Gourmet Shop and is ready to add more shuttle buses if demand requires, said Derrick Huggins, USC’s director of transportation.
“We can respond very quickly if there is a need to go from four to eight buses,” Huggins said. “We can move 40 to 45 people (per shuttle) with standing room at any given time. We’re confident that there will not be any waits.”
USC students may ride free on the shuttles or if they summon Carolina Cab at those sites, Huggins said. Carolina Cab operates under a university contract with the Checker Yellow cab company, he said.
The university and the city police department have added extra lighting to help riders find the sites and to improve security there.
Beyond game day, City Hall and USC have coordinated to offer the pickup sites on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Normal parking meter spaces are set aside during those hours.
Five other designated sites in Five Points will serve the general public at market rates.
KEEPING FUN PLACES FUN
Five Points has been the site of several violent crimes in recent years, ranging from the near fatal group-attack on an 18-year-old hurrying home to meet a family curfew in June 2011 to October’s shooting that left a USC student who was waiting for a ride home in a wheelchair.
The accused gunman in the shooting of Martha Childress last year was a 20-year-old youthful offender. Prison director Stirling said that is when he coordinated with local authorities to first impose the 10 p.m. curfew.
“They have no business being down there,” Stirling said of the three entertainment districts.
Corrections records show that 93 of South Carolina’s 1,145 youthful offenders – first-time and nonviolent lawbreakers younger than 25 – live in Richland or Lexington counties.
Sheriff Leon Lott said the curfew worked in Five Points because offenders know they will be carted off to the county jail and face the prospect of returning to prison to serve their original sentences.
“That hammer over their heads is a big incentive (to stay away),” Lott said.
Also, in February, the city installed four additional emergency call boxes in Five Points, city officials said.
Meanwhile, the Five Points Association has added clean-up workers after games in the district as well as surrounding neighborhoods, said Amy Beth Franks, director of the business group.
And further, restaurants and bars there have been working with the State Law Enforcement Division and a local alcohol- and drug-treatment agency to reinforce how to serve alcohol responsibly and to spot underage drinkers.
Vista Guild director Sarah Lewis said businesses along the Gervais Street corridor have coordinated with Columbia police about patrols and cameras.