Artist detained by Columbia Police claims racial profiling during City Council meeting

Updated: Jun. 1, 2021 at 7:27 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Tuesday, the Columbia City Council heard from an artist that Columbia Police Dept. officers detained while investigating an open door at an arts facility.

Officers detained and handcuffed John Sims at the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in the early hours of May 17.

Sims was the artist-in-residence at the facility, staying within the building.

He was not arrested, but the incident drew the attention of local journalism outlets and prompted the quick release of a statement and body camera footage by the department.

CPD reports that at 2 a.m. on May 17, officers found a door propped open at 701 Whaley Street. Body-camera footage from the incident shows three officers entered the building, guns drawn.

The officers searched the building and ultimately found Sims.

Officers handcuffed Sims while verifying his identity. The body camera video shows officers released Sims after roughly six minutes.

He appeared visibly shaken by the incident.

CPD released a statement saying officers performed their duties properly and as trained. The only issue being they did not allow Sims to photograph them.

It reads, in part:

“...As Chief Holbrook has stated before, our communities are faced with significant challenges today.

“Recent events around the country have brought policing issues, such as transparency and accountability, community trust, officer and public safety, and use of force, and implicit bias to the forefront in our public dialogue. CPD has taken advantage of every opportunity to be a part of the national conversation about community-police engagement and criminal justice reforms through training, policy, and culture...”

It also stated the Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson recognizes a need to better identify Airbnb locations with first responders. (Read the full statement at the end of this article.)

Meanwhile, the CCA released a statement decrying the department’s actions.

It reads, in part:

“...What we can and must do is to ask the Columbia Police Department to examine carefully its policies and practices related to racial profiling that unnecessarily escalated this incident and put the life of an innocent man at risk. We also ask the Department to exercise care in its public statements to ensure that they fully and accurately represent events that will be scrutinized and that they do not, as a result, shift blame to the victim, as happened in this case with Mr. Sims....”

Sims’ artwork is self-described as controversial. He’s a Black artist displaying nooses and Confederate symbols while altering the color scheme.

He expressed concern in the body camera footage that he was being targeted for his art. The bodycam video does not show officers entering the gallery.

CPD and Columbia City Councilmembers did visit the gallery in the aftermath of the incident.

Sims spoke at council Tuesday at the invitation of councilmembers.

He argued he was racially profiled and the officers handcuffed him without considering why he might be there.

“Why didn’t I have a chance to explain why I was there before I was handcuffed?” he asked the council. “Now had I been a white woman in panties and a t-shirt, would I have been detained then? Why was my driver’s license called in? What if I was armed legally and fired upon intruders, not knowing they were police -- would the stand your ground law apply to me?”

Sims spoke on broader issues on the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement.

“Expecting Black people to continue to accept this insane treatment of racial profiling, gratuitous detainment, and toxic disrespect is not an option,” he said. “Assuming Black people are out of place is not an option. Slave catching days are over. The Civil War is over.”

Councilmembers did not respond to Sims’ comments. However, Mayor Steve Benjamin said he related to Sims’ art and thanked him for his time.

The mayor said there are issues to be worked on. However, he did support Chief Skip Holbrook and CPD.

“Chief Holbrook has indeed led nationally on, and CPD has, on some 21st century policing issues -- particularly as it relates to issues of transparency, training around implicit bias and unconscious bias,” Benjamin said. “We know that there are systemic issues that affect this country, indeed go back to the birth of this nation.”

Benjamin said he would continue the conversation with Sims and would return to the gallery.

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