Sunday, October 31, 2010

SLED's Shift in Focus from Student Safety to Busting Underage Drinkers

Kayla Gasbarro


The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, most recognizable to USC students when referred to as “SLED”, works alongside USC Campus Police and Columbia City Police to help keep Five Points and the surrounding areas of Columbia safe. Their objective is defined on their website, stating, “The primary mission of the State Law Enforcement Division is to provide quality manpower and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies and to conduct investigations on behalf of the state as directed by the Governor and Attorney General.” SLED is composed of a number of divisions, a few of which being Alcohol Enforcement, Homeland Security Office, Private Investigations, Sex Offender Registry and Counter Terrorism. The division also features an Amber Alert section, which explains how the South Carolina Amber Alert works, where it originated, and how it plays a role in the community to help prevent abductions and locate missing children. This section contains Amber Alert forms, where you can report a child who has gone missing in the state of South Carolina. It also offers abduction and kidnapping prevention tips for parents. Their website also includes a “news and press” section that features major news stories that SLED has played a role in, from undercover investigations to community service projects to numerous arrests.

With all the good SLED is doing for the community, it was surprising to discover most USC students only associate the law enforcement division with one thing: busting underage drinkers. There is no doubting that underage drinking is a renowned past time for college students and prevalent among students at USC. On the busiest night of the week, Thirsty Thursday, the streets of Five Points are flooded with hundreds of students eager to take advantage of dollar beer and liquor specials at bars such as Village Idiot, Pour House, Dr. Rocco’s and Parrot Heads. It is common among these individuals to use fake-IDs to get into bars, and until recently, they had been getting away with it.

SLED officers have been cracking down on underage drinking and making their presence more prominent in Five Points. SLED has been known to utilize methods such as bar raids and undercover operations, where young officers dress as USC students and approach under-agers at bars. A sophomore student who prefers to remain anonymous considering the nature of her situation, recalled her experience with an undercover SLED officer at Parrot Heads in Five Points,

“A normal-looking guy dressed like everyone else approached me while I was sitting at the bar and asked if I wanted a drink. As soon as I agreed, he asked me for identification. I thought he was joking, so I handed him my sister’s ID I had used to get into the bar. He then told me he was a police officer and that I had to come outside with him. The next thing I knew I was being cuffed and thrown in the back of a police car.”

She spent the night in Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center and was charged with various misdemeanors for underage drinking and possessing a fake ID.

Although underage drinking is unlawful, students are beginning to question whether undercover task forces such as these are taking it too far, especially considering the recently escalated crime rate in Five Points. The general consensus among USC students is that they do not feel safe downtown despite the abundance of police officers on duty every night.

Haley Parler, a junior electronic journalism student at USC expresses her concerns about student safety in Five Points, and the precautions she has taken since her most recent personal experience downtown.

“I don’t feel safe there. The only time I went to Five Points this year was after the UGA game and someone got shot. I’ve noticed after a certain time Five Points seems to get ridden with more and more of these people in gangs, trying to corner you and talk to you as you are walking.”

She discussed the issue further, elaborating on SLED’s reputation around campus, saying,

“I think many students at USC see SLED as the enemy who is trying to bust them, hand out tickets and take away their IDs. If SLED were to relax on the underage drinking and focus more on keeping students safe we would probably have a more favorable representation of them.”

Peter Boland, a fourth-year economics major offers another perspective on the situation, because he deals with it nightly. Peter works as a bouncer four nights a week at Pour House, one of the most popular bars in Five Points. When asked if through his nightly observations of the crowd in Five Points he thought it was a safe place for students, he raised an eyebrow, laughed as if the question was intended to be sarcastic and knowingly replied, “No, not safe at all.”

He expressed his opinion on SLED, saying they don’t seem to care about students getting from bar to bar safely, only about giving people tickets for drinking. Although he does not feel personally threatened by the criminal activity in Five Points, he agrees with the student consensus stating,

“I could see why everyone feels unsafe here with all the gang activity and shootings that happen, especially on the weekends. The cops don’t seem to care. People sit around the fountain bother students by yelling obscene things as they walk by. The cops don’t say anything to them even though they could easily ticket them for loitering, at least to get them to leave people alone.”

Overall, the student perception of SLED seems to be unfavorable even with all the good they are doing among the community. When asked what students thought would change their perception of SLED, the general feeling was that they wanted to see undercover officers change out of their disguises and pursue the criminal activity that is jeopardizing students’ safety.

Boland commented on this point stating,

“They should focus more on what is going on outside the bars than inside them, and not just target the students, because they usually aren’t the ones causing all the trouble.”

Jennifer Marsh, a third grade teacher and graduate of Duquesne University in Pennsylvania, recalled her memories from college. She remembers 25 years ago when she would use a fake ID she made herself to get into bars in downtown Pittsburgh. She says police were not nearly as worried about underage drinking as they are now, stating,

“The most they would do is if you were falling down drunk, they would give you a ride home to make sure you got back safely. If you gave them a hard time they would call your parents and have them deal with it, then drop you off at your dorm and go out to deal with the real criminals out there. I don’t think it is a serious enough issue for kids to be getting thrown in over-populated city jails for. It’s like they have shifted their focus from making sure kids are safe when they are on their own and away at college, to how much money they can rack up in fines any given night.”

It is safe to say the popular past time of college students will remain despite SLED’s efforts. The students would prefer to see SLED concentrate on the crime that is already so prevalent in Five Points and punish those who are intentionally and directly threatening the safety of students, rather than distributing fines and misdemeanors to unsuspecting under-agers.