Cops unprepared for May 30 Columbia riots, but that won’t happen again, sheriff says


Columbia will not become like Portland or any other cities where widespread continuous rioting has broken out, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the Columbia Rotary Club on Monday.

His and other departments were completely unprepared on May 30, a Saturday, when a group of some 300 gathered in front of the City police department on Washington Street, then some in the group rampaged through the Vista, setting fire to police cars, breaking windows and attacking police, but that will not happen again, Lott said.

“I had no idea who the Boogaloo Boys actually were,” Lott said, mentioning one of the groups whose anti-government members showed up on May 30 and who he said were bent on destruction. The others were the antifa, the Crips gang and various assorted criminal elements not associated with any organized group, Lott said.

Not only will law enforcement be better prepared, his department is doing major outreaches with those Black Lives Matter protesters and working to resolve grievances, Lott said.

After George Floyd, an African American, died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, and a video of his death went viral on the internet, protests broke out across the nation and the world. The Columbia protests were in response to Floyd’s death.

The several thousand Black Lives Matter protesters who peacefully demonstrated in front of the State House on the morning and early afternoon of May 30 were completely different from those who gathered later that day in front of the Columbia police department, Lott said.

“They (the Crips, criminals, antifa and the Boogaloo Boys) had nothing to do with the peaceful protest. They came for the violence, and they came for destruction,” Lott said. “That group was led by the Boogaloo Boys … they had bulletproof vests on. They were prepared.”

Lott said Crips and Boogaloo Boys are among the the 98 suspects police have arrested after the May 30 riots and they are searching for an alleged antifa member.

Only about 10 law enforcement officers were in front of the police station when the mob began vandalizing cars and city shops, said Lott, saying he promptly got on the phone and called every available deputy to hasten to the police station. He also called the State Law Enforcement Division, the FBI and Kershaw County, he said. Another group of law officers was inside the police station, ready to defend it if rioters broke through, Lott said.

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Some in the group were throwing bricks, rocks, frozen water bottles, Lott said. Others had cans of spray paint and guns, he said.

Rioters burned the American flag flying in front of the police station, burned or damaged 21 Columbia police cars, 12 civilian cars and looted or vandalized 25 Vista businesses, Lott said.

Lott praised city and state leaders for backing up law enforcement, especially Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who declared a state of emergency, called a curfew beginning at 6 p.m. and told those not from Columbia to “take your asses home.”

Since then, Lott said, 98 people have been arrested for events on that day and are continuing to be rounded up. Much evidence was gathered through police body cameras and video put on the internet, Lott said One alleged vandal was identified through DNA in the blood he left at the scene of a vandalized jewelry store, Lott said.

Since May 30, Lott said, no similar outbreaks have occurred, in part because of the tough city stance, but also because his department has made a major outreach to protesters in the Black Lives Matter South Carolina movement. “We’ve partnered with them, and we’ve come up with some good ideas to make the system better.”

Lott said he’s found that some of law enforcement and the protesters’ goals are the same — to treat people decently — and “by working together, we can accomplish that.”

A few groups don’t want to work with law enforcement, Lott said. “That’s fine. But our message to them was, ‘You aren’t going to burn Columbia down either.’ ”

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including those of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, serial killer Pee Wee Gaskins and child killer Tim Jones. Monk’s hobbies include hiking, books, languages, music and a lot of other things.

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