By Noelle Phillips
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago found himself answering questions Friday about a late-night Facebook post that set off a social media firestorm after he told a critical commenter on his department's page, "We will work on finding you."
The uproar began Thursday night after a news release and mug shot was posted on the department's Facebook page about the arrest of a man who had eight pounds of marijuana. One commenter had criticized the department's police work in Five Points, saying it should put its emphasis there rather than on marijuana.
As a response, Santiago, who did not identify himself at the time, used the commenter's name and wrote, "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."
Many people on Facebook interpreted the post as a threat from the city's police department. That led others, including an S.C. GOP activist, to launch into Santiago, saying the man's free speech rights had been violated by the threat. The controversy soon went viral, spreading across the Internet. As of Friday night, the police department's Facebook page had more than 200 comments and people were posting links about the controversy on their personal pages.
A few websites that advocate for the legalization of marijuana seized on it, saying the police chief had publicly threatened a "pro marijuana" supporter.
No one disputed the first sentence in Santiago's post even though that, too, could be questioned. Earlier Thursday, the department issued a news release to say it had arrested a suspect in a weekend robbery in Five Points but suspects in a second reported robbery in Five Points were still at-large.
To further the controversy, Santiago's first post was removed from Facebook. He later identified himself and posted another comment trying to explain himself.
Jennifer Timmons, a police department spokeswoman, said she deleted Santiago's original comment late Thursday night after it was brought to her attention.
"I deleted that post because I thought it was best to do that until I got a better understanding of what he was trying to say and to set the record straight," she said.
Santiago's second response was posted after he and Timmons spoke on the phone:
"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 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. 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 all crime."
Friday afternoon, Santiago said he has learned a hard lesson on social media posts: It's easy for them to be misunderstood, and he will think twice about future comments. He and Timmons manage the page.
Santiago said he made the comments late in the evening while watching television and looking at Facebook on his tablet computer. Santiago said he wasn't drinking. "I don't drink."
"This is a reminder to us — especially to myself — to double check and triple check what I write," Santiago said. "It's not our intent to criminalize an individual or create havoc on social media."
Santiago said he had informed his bosses at City Hall — City Manager Teresa Wilson and Assistant City Manager Allison Baker -- of the controversy. Efforts to reach Wilson were unsuccessful.
Santiago said he sent an apology to the original commenter, Brandon Whitmer. The State reached out to Whitmer on Facebook but did not received a reply.
However, Whitmer returned to the Facebook thread to say he was not advocating drug use.
"I'm more worried about violence and people getting killed than a junkie selling/using drugs. I didn't mean to offend anyone and your work is appreciated," Whitmer wrote.
He then urged others to give Santiago a break.
"And by the way... I'm the person that was supposedly 'threatened' and I have no issue so leave the man alone," he wrote.
Meanwhile, the department will continue posting arrests, community events and links to news articles on its Facebook page and Twitter, Santiago said.
"We try to be as active as possible on social media," Santiago said. "It's been a valuable tool as far as education and awareness."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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