COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Facebook post authored by Columbia's interim police chief in response to a man's opinion Thursday night has gotten a fair amount of attention on social media Friday.
Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago said his postings were not meant to be threatening in any way.
The Columbia Police regularly posts press releases on Facebook announcing arrests or seeking information on wanted suspects. A post announcing the arrest of a 25-year-old Columbia man for possessing approximately $40k in marijuana has sparked a firestorm of comments, but not necessarily because of the subject-matter of the news release.
Santiago apparently took offense to one commenter's opinion.
"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 illegal here one day anyway," wrote Facebook user Brandon Whitmer.
Not long after the post, a response from the Columbia Police Department was directed to Whitmer.
"@ Brandon whitmer, we have arrested all of 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."
The Columbia Police Department post, which was eventually deleted, ignited dozens of comments from users who objected to the threatening nature of the official response.
At that point, it was unclear who within the department actually authored the post. Santiago ended the speculation within a few hours of the initial post.
"This is Interim Chief Santiago posting, I was just notified that one of my staff members deleted my post," Santiago wrote on Facebook. "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 you MIGHT also be involved in that particular activity, threat? Why would someone feel threaten [sic] if you are not doing anything wrong?"
"Apply this same concept to gang activity or gang members," continued Santiago. "You can have gang tattoos and advocate that life style [sic], 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 all crime."
A local attorney has offered to represent Whitmer pro bono if CPD attempts to do anything to him as a result of the comment.
A spokesperson for the Columbia Police Department said Santiago did not mean his post to be offensive or malicious. "The comment was intended to put would-be criminals on notice and certainly not Mr. [Whitmer]," said Jennifer Timmons. "Law enforcement in general must look at the totality of circumstances."
Santiago did reach out to Whitmer after the Facebook comments, but the details of that communication have not been made public.
Whitmer said via Facebook Friday morning that he was not advocating drug use.
"I'm more worried about violence and people getting killed than a junkie selling/using drugs," wrote Whitmer. "I didn't mean to offend anyone and your work is appreciated."
"And by the way, continued Whitmer. "I'm the person that was supposedly 'threatened' and I have no issue so leave the man alone."
Most of the user comments, however, do not follow Whitmer's direction. The comments totaled 154 and counting Friday afternoon.
Timmons said Santiago started the CPD Facebook page to be interactive with citizens.
"And as a way to educate the public on CPD matters," Timmons said. "We encourage citizen input. We understand and appreciate varying opinions. Social media posts can be misconstrued. A post is different than a face-to-face interaction when questions can be asked or a clarification made."
Santiago told the Free Times Friday afternoon that the incident has been a lesson for him.