Columbia’s police chief says he’s going to be a lot more careful on social media after he set off a firestorm by telling a Facebook user “we will work on finding you” who had criticized the department for focusing on marijuana arrests.
Thursday night, the Columbia Police Department posted a Facebook message trumpeting a marijuana bust from earlier that day, prompting this reply from one Brandon Widmer:
“Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that’s not bothering anyone. It’ll be legal here one day anyway.”
This was the reply from the official police department Facebook profile:
“@Brandon whitmer, we have arrested all the violent offenders in Five points. Thank you for sharing your views and giving us reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal, we will work on finding you.” [That link is to a screencap by former Free Times reporter Corey Hutchins.]
That reply was soon deleted. But then CPD posted this:
“This is Interim Chief Santiago posting. I was just notified that one of my staff members deleted my post. I put everyone on notice that if you advocate for the use of illegal substances in the City of Columbia then it’s reasonable to believe that you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity, threat? Why would someone feel threaten if you are not doing anything wrong? Apply the same concept to gang activity or gang members. You can have gang tattoos and advocate that life style, but that only makes me suspicious of them, I can’t do anything until they commit a crime. So feel free to express yourself, and I will continue to express myself and what we stand for. I am always open to hearing how our citizens feel like we can be effective in fighting crime.”
News of the exchange made it to Boing Boing today, among other sites.
In a conversation with Free Times, Santiago confirms that both those posts were indeed from him.
But he insists he wasn’t trying to single out Widmer.
“I think it definitely got misconstrued,” Santiago said. “I was trying to say we put would-be criminals on notice. Sometimes it’s easy for social media stuff to get misunderstood.”
“As I was typing it, never did I perceive it was going to be perceived that way,” he said. He says he sent Widmer a message saying he hoped he hadn’t offended him.
“This was a late night situation,” Santiago said.
Asked what he meant by that, Santiago said, “It was late last night when I was reading and I posted — I was working late.”
Free Times asked Santiago if he believes someone’s opposition to marijuana enforcement is a reason to suspect that person of criminal behavior.
The interim chief said that alone isn’t enough, but might factor in to an officer’s interest in someone.
“It’s the totality of circumstances,” Santiago said. “I can give you some idea of real cases: Somebody might wear beads with a marijuana leaf on it, or a shirt with a marijuana leaf, or have marijuana tattoos. … In the state of South Carolina, marijuana’s illegal.”
“But that’s doesn’t give me the right to detail you or stop you with just that one factor,” Santiago said. “What we train officers to do is when you see something suspicious, go up and talk to them.”
In any case, he said, “Obviously, this has been a lesson for me.”
“I’ve been educated by my [public information officer] in making sure we coordinate our efforts in the way we handle social media,” he said.