South Carolina Police Chief Threatens to Arrest Drug War Critic


Columbia Police Department

Last week I noted that anti-drug activists in Maine had asked Portland's transit agency to reject bus ads supporting a ballot measure that would repeal local penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Such viewpoint-based censorship in a "designated public forum" would have been clearly unconstitutional. But at least no one said advocates of marijuana legalization should be arrested. No one, that is, except Ruben Santiago, interim police chief of Columbia, South Carolina's capital. Popehat's Ken White reports that Santiago recently cited a resident's criticism of marijuana prohibition as grounds for a criminal investigation.

The threat came in response to a Facebook comment by Brandon Whitmer, who was unimpressed by Santiago's announcement of a local pot bust. "Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points [a Columbia neighborhood] instead of worrying about a stoner that's not bothering anyone," Whitmer said. "It'll be legal here one day anyway." To which Santiago replied:

@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 post quickly disappeared, creating the impression that the author had thought better of threatening critics of the drug war with arrest. Not so! Santiago later 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[. T]hreat? Why would someone feel threaten[ed] 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.

In response to an inquiry from White, a Columbia Policy Department (CPD) spokesman confirmed that Santiago had indeed written the two posts but suggested his comments had been misinterpreted:

Chief was trying to say that he puts would-be-criminals on notice—if you commit a crime or plan to commit one, CPD will work hard to investigate and press charges according to the law.

It's easy for social media posts to be misunderstood.

In other words , when Santiago said Whitmer's criticism of a pot bust provided "reasonable suspicion to believe you might be a criminal" and added that "we will work on finding you," he was making a statement about his department's professionalism. Or lack thereof.

A few months ago Ed Krayewski noted that Dave Navarro, a former CPD captain, had accused Santiago of plotting to frame Assistant City Manager Allison Baker. Santiago responded with a defamation suit against Navarro.

[Thanks to Allen St. Pierre for the tip.]