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Columbia police chief on COVID-19 curfew: 'We are going to provide fair, unbiased policing'

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Skip Holbrook Leon Lott Vince Pallozzi

Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, left, talks about gun crimes as ATF's Vince Pallozzi, center, and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott listen on Feb 26, 2020.

Unusual times call for unusual measures.

It's a thought that is likely on the minds of many as the City of Columbia continues to take demonstrative steps to help slow the spread of the dangerous coronavirus COVID-19, which has sparked a global pandemic.

And Columbia City Council took a particularly attention-grabbing step on March 17 — instating a curfew set to begin on Wednesday, March 18. The nightly curfew will last from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Council unanimously approved the effort on March 17, and the order that puts the curfew in place is good for two months, though Council could end it earlier if the spread of the coronavirus subsides.

The curfew, which will be in effect for all age groups across the city and applies to all public places, has exceptions for people traveling to and from work, as well as people seeking healthcare or experiencing an emergency. It also exempts police, fire, medical, military and other essential personnel.

The Columbia Police Department is tasked with enforcing the curfew. Police Skip Holbrook spoke with Free Times about how his department plans to work through the law.

"We'll do it with good judgement and common sense," Holbrook says. "'Curfew' is, I think, an alarming word to many people. It's being used in a different context, with a different intent, here, in my opinion. Oftentimes, when we talk about curfews, it's related to a hurricane or a natural disaster, where the purpose of the curfew is to protect property or prevent looting. ... This curfew is really about enforcing social distancing. These are extraordinary times.

"We are asking everybody to exercise social distancing and not be out and about unless it's absolutely necessary."

The term "social distancing" has blasted into the American lexicon in recent days, as officials have implored the public to avoid gatherings to help slow the spread of the lethal coronavirus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate has, as of the afternoon of March 18, infected more than 7,000 Americans and killed nearly 100 nationwide.

President Donald Trump has issued guidelines asking people to not gather in groups larger than 10 people, and Gov. Henry McMaster on March 17 issued an order that closed dine-in functions at restaurants and bars across South Carolina. Virtually every major gathering point in the country — from pro and college basketball games to Disney World to Regal and AMC movie theaters and far beyond — has been canceled or temporarily shuttered.

As for the Columbia curfew, Holbrook pledges that officers' responses will be measured when they come upon citizens in public after hours.

"It will be a warning, and asking them to move along and comply," the chief says. "Hopefully, we'll be able to do that at a safe distance. We'll say, 'Please be advised there is a curfew in place and we are trying to mitigate people's interactions and the spreading of the coronavirus.' Then, just like with anything, if we get noncompliance, we'd have to escalate that."

Holbrook says that actually arresting people and taking them to jail would be a "very, very last resort," adding he simply doesn't think there will be many cases where it will rise to that.

"When you think about it, a custodial arrest really defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do anyway," the chief says. "That just puts us in greater intimate contact with a noncompliant person. We end up having to [sanitize] the car, take resources off the road. So, we are hoping that this is a tool that reinforces social distance and that our citizens will be responsible."

Holbrook says a middle ground between issuing warnings to those violating curfew and making an arrest would be to give them a ticket and fine. He said that could come if officers meet up with frequent offenders as time goes along.

"[Tickets would happen] if we encounter somebody repeatedly," he says. "You will see a heavy dose of warning and education for multiple days. That's our primary goal. If we start running into the same groups or something like that, we'll start issuing tickets."

There can be concerns with special curfews that they could disproportionately impact certain communities. For instance, in 2017, Austin, Texas, ended its youth curfew over concerns that it was targeting racial minorities. The Guardian reported that black youths received 17 percent of the citations for nighttime violations of curfew in that Texas city, despite making up only 8 percent of the population.

Holbrook insists that Columbia police would be fair in the enforcement of the temporary curfew in the Capital City.

"To me, where it garners the greatest interest is in business and entertainment areas, where you would [normally] see groups of people congregating," the chief notes. "We will enforce in keeping with our core values and professionalism as we always do. We are going to provide fair, unbiased policing, across the board. We are a diverse workforce that looks like our city. We are a diverse city. We will apply the law equally and use common sense."

At-large City Councilman Howard Duvall, who, along with Mayor Steve Benjamin, was a key driver in getting the curfew ordinance passed, says he believes the measure will be deployed in a fair manner.

"I have complete confidence in Chief Holbrook and his force," Duvall says. "They are professional. They will apply this where it needs to be applied and they will apply it fairly."

During a City Council teleconference meeting on March 17, it was Duvall who made the motion to institute the curfew. He says he thinks it could be a helpful tool in encouraging social distancing.

"I do feel strongly about a curfew," the second-term councilman tells Free Times. "I think the curfew is maybe the first step. We've got to do something to get the attention of the public that this is a very, very serious disease. If the public will not have some self-control to stay out of crowds, to stay indoors, to limit their contact with other people, this virus has the potential of killing a lot of people."

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