Nathan Ballentine proposes solution for violent crime in Columbia: Sheriff Leon Lott

At the risk of seeming even more like a guy who thinks of himself as the Editorial Page Editor in Exile, allow me to call your attention to a second good piece on the opinion pages of The State today.

You should read Rep. Nathan Ballentine’s piece promoting Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott as the guy who can lead Columbia to solutions in dealing with its violent crime problem. An excerpt:

The answer to Columbia’s violent crime isn’t what, but who

Recently, the Midlands has seen a dramatic rise in gang violence and senseless shootings. Business leaders, elected officials, USC’s administration and many others have sought answers to the big question: What can we do to stop it? College students, victims’ groups and law enforcement officials all have met and pondered the same question: How can we combat violent crime?

Sheriff Leon Lott

Sheriff Leon Lott

There may not be just one answer, but I know one man who has the experience and sheer determination to find all the answers and get the job done here in Columbia: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

In the past, Columbia City Council has been reluctant to cede power to Sheriff Lott, apparently because of small turf battles and out of fear that council members might lose some control over the law enforcement they currently manage….

For many of us, the answer is clear: have Sheriff Lott take over control of city law enforcement efforts and allocate resources where he knows they will best be utilized, city or county. To do anything less is simply sanctioning further violence throughout Columbia.

Leon Lott is a unique individual who transcends politics and has a record of achievement…

Some may be surprised to see a conservative Republican lawmaker — one of Gov. Nikki Haley’s oldest and best friends in the House — praising a Democratic sheriff to the skies. Such people don’t know Nathan Ballentine very well. He will work with anyone, D or R, whom he sees as able to get the job done.

Others, unfortunately, will dismiss this as a white legislator (a Republican, no less — and from Chapin!) promoting a white lawman to ride in and show a town with a black mayor, black city manager and a series of minority police chiefs how to make Five Points safe for white college kids. Not that anyone will put it quite that bluntly, but there may be such a reaction, on the part of some, to that effect.

People who react that way will not be reassured by Nathan pointing out that Sheriff Lott was way out ahead of the city in recognizing the community’s gang problem, and doing something about it. That has long been a touchy subject along the demographic fault line in Columbia, with (and yes, I’m deliberately oversimplifying to make a point) white folks saying of course there’s a gang problem, and black folks saying, you white people see a “gang” wherever two or more young, black males congregate.

Setting race aside, some will react at the “great man theory” that underlies the Ballentine piece — the idea that this sheriff, this man, is the one to do the job. What happens, they’ll say, when Lott is no longer sheriff?

In other words, the barrier to communication runs a little deeper than “small turf battles.” Although that’s a part of it, too. There are multiple reasons why this hasn’t happened already.

There’s an opportunity here. Mayor Steve Benjamin has just gotten re-elected by a strong margin, and he has floated the idea of Lott taking over before. With the strong-mayor vote coming up the potential for change is in the air — although it’s tough to say whether the Lott idea has a better or a worse chance in light of that. (Better if it makes people more willing to give the major more power, worse if they say, if a strong mayor doesn’t run the police department, what’s the point?)

If he takes this up again, Benjamin has the political chops and stature to override a lot (if not all) of the gut-level objections out there, as well as the bureaucratic ones.

Is it doable? I don’t know. But letting the sheriff elected to serve the whole county actually run law enforcement for the whole county is an idea that deserves a full and fair hearing.

14 thoughts on “Nathan Ballentine proposes solution for violent crime in Columbia: Sheriff Leon Lott

  1. Silence

    I went camping with Leon Lott, his wife, and his daughter Debbie! Debbie Lott. She’s 7-years-old, goes about 3’5″, 55 pounds. So, I’m in the back of a pickup with Leon Lott and a live deer! Well, Leon, he grabs the deer by the antlers, looks at it and says, “I’m Leon Lott! Say it!” Then he squeezes the deer in such a way that a sound comes out of its mouth – “Leonlott!” It wasn’t exactly it, but it was pretty good for a deer.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Why someone in Chapin might not be the best judge of what’s best for the city of Columbia: when Leon pulled his lockdown traffic stops encircling Five Points, without any notice to CPD, a whole lot of traffic diverted itself through theretofore quiet residential streets. Turning Five Points into a militarized zone is not going to help the bars attract law abiding customers, either.

    If Leon is so great with gang suppression, why hasn’t he rolled his tank through gang- infested areas in the county?

  3. tired old man

    Today’s paper, where the operator of the Library indicated he would go out of business, reveals the complexity of Leon Lott’s attack on Five Points disruptions. He turned to the Dept of Revenue, and used its muscle to cramp the misnamed Library further by attacking its failure to pay its business taxes. Similarly, he used the Dept of Probation and Paroles to eyeball the Five Points crowd last weekend to see if youthful parolees were down there in violation of their parole conditions.

    The issue of Five Points is not just a crime issue to be faced solely by the police. I think Leon needs to be calling the insurers who write policies for the bars there, asking if they think the current premiums are adequate protection for a business model that emphasizes binge drinking by pouring shots of cheap liquor into underage kids who are themselves using counterfeit ID. You might also value an initiative to involve USC’s Pastides in what is tantamount to a mass violation of homeland security laws — with USC telling kids that if they get caught with them, they and their scholarships are gone, gone, gone.

    I agree with Kathryn that his unilateral, unannounced and uncoordinated policy has drawbacks and unintended consequences — but today’s paper, with its continuing allegations of bribes to city officials suggests that Leon had justification.

    I think it is time that the city give up the Columbia Police Department, and that it be combined into the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which would be supported by a countywide tax levy. City taxes would go down, county taxes would go up for city residents. The insane progression of musical chairs as a method of choosing police chiefs would end — and better that the voters have an opportunity to pass on a sheriff every four years than the current situation where police chiefs come and go with the frequency of the bus system’s new Comet bus.

    Thoughtful people can come up with some checks and balances on the power of this particular sheriff and — more importantly — future sheriffs.

    1. Doug Ross

      Good points, tired old man… what does the Columbia Police Department do that the County could not? I would assume their would be opportunities for reducing expenses through consolidation. Put the focus on crime prevention rather than on protecting personal turfs.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    CPD understands the complex issues facing communities that don’t have gates and covenants, and are heterogenous socio-economically. They don’t come in guns a-blazing for one night! They have been in for the long haul

    Also, do we know it was Lott who sicced DoR on The Library. Ruben had alluded to creative operations, as well!

    1. Mark Stewart


      I am pretty sure that Richland County is socio-economically equivalent to the City of Columbia – if anything, a bit poorer overall. That’s just personal observation from having driven around just about every nook and cranny of the city and county.

      Is there a real gated community in Richland County? Other than the little one in Forest Acres?

      1. Doug Ross

        Windemere off Longtown Rd is gated… but you’re right, Mark. The town of Blythewood is as diverse as downtown Columbia both racially and economically.

        1. Doug Ross

          I’m also pretty sure Sheriff Lott won’t be trolling Facebook late at night threatening people who think busting pot dealers instead of gang bangers is not the best use of resources. That was a pretty dumb move.

        2. Mark Stewart

          That’s as faux as Golden Hiills in Lexington.

          There is nothing quite as blatant as gating publicly funded roadways…

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    Richland County outside the city is middle class and upper middle class enclaves, and poor rural holdovers, very segregated by income and geography. You don’t have situations like where Forest Hills directly abuts St. Anna’s Court, home of Gonzales Gardens, for example.


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