COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After a weekend full of protests, tension and moments of violence, Sheriff Leon Lott shared his perspective Monday.
Protesters in Columbia are invoking George Floyd’s name in calls for justice and calls against police brutality, especially against the black community. The group is organized by Black Lives Matter.
The sheriff said the weekend started with a peaceful protest at the State House on Saturday, where he walked through the crowd and spoke to people.
Lott walked with the group to the Columbia Police Department headquarters. That’s where he says the mood changed.
He said it was a “totally different crowd” once they reached CPD, calling them rioters instead of protesters.
Lott said those people were there to “attack police and probably burn down the police department.”
He said soon, he and his deputies and other officers had to dodge rocks and bottles being thrown at them.
“From that point it basically went downhill,” he said.
Lott said they had to take the city over when things turned violent.
Police were swift and methodical in their disbursement of Saturday’s crowd. Lines of officers swept downtown streets, arresting anyone who remained.
He said Sunday’s peaceful protest at the State House also involved two crowds and one group tried to “sneak into the back of the police department.”
The sheriff said he was there and had rocks thrown at him before the line of officers fired tear gas at protesters.
“I was there and I dodged rocks,” Lott said. “It’s not a make-believe thing. I dodged rocks, I dodged bottles and I was there as force was used against us.”
Lott called it a coordinated attack. He said protesters were “sneaking around” trying to get behind police and sneak into the back of the police department.
The sheriff said the tear gas worked to disperse the crowd and they will use it again if needed.
He called the people he considers rioters “organized” and bent on destruction.
Pointing to the arrest of a man who had a gun that could fire 30 rounds at a time without reloading, he said his officers are up against bullets, not just rocks and bottles.
Lott said he doesn’t know if that gun was fired Sunday, but it was found in the man’s backpack when he was taken into custody.
The sheriff also said they have arrested people from North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and New York. He says some of the violence is because of outside groups.
“People hellbent on destroying Columbia -- we’re not going to let that happen,” Lott said.
He added that they are reviewing pictures and video from the media and social media in an effort to make more arrests.
The sheriff said investigators are looking for anyone who threw a rock or started a fire or vandalized a business or did any looting.
“Everyone’s going to be held accountable,” Lott said. “No one’s going to get a free ride over this.”
The sheriff also said peaceful people involved with the protests should leave before tensions rise if they don’t want to be tear gassed. He said they should have known what was going on and it wasn’t just a few bad apples.
“I’m sorry they got tear gassed but they should’ve left a lot earlier when they saw what was happening,” Lott said.
He emphasized police did not attack protesters and if anyone is to blame for innocent people getting tear gassed, it’s other protesters -- ones who attacked police, he said.
The sheriff said his department has built relationships with the community and should not be held accountable for the actions of bad officers. He did condemn what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“But that’s not us,” he added.
Lott said everything the protesters are demanding from local law enforcement, the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the City of Columbia are already doing.
“We’re so far ahead of everyone else as far as being transparent and what we release and how we talk about critical incidents and building relationships with the community,” Lott said.
He said there isn’t anything on the list of the demands they aren’t doing. For example, Lott said they’ve had a citizen oversight council for years.
“We can also do more and are always open for dialogue,” he added.
He urged protesters to remain peaceful, but also suggested that they aren’t working since they are turning violent.
“How about work with us? Let’s find other means to do something and have your voices heard besides having a peaceful protest because it is getting sabotaged and hijacked,” Lott said. “Maybe we need to cool it for a little bit.”
Protesters have said they did not escalate situations with police on Sunday and tear gas should not have been used. They remain steadfast that they did not start any confrontation with police.
At the State House on Monday, protesters told WIS they don’t think law enforcement is hearing them. They want to see officers walk with them and stand by them as has been seen in some other cities across the country.
The National Guard is on standby to respond to Columbia, but has not been called in at this time.