Columbia officials said an extended police presence on and around the Statehouse grounds will begin Saturday and run through Wednesday in anticipation of potential armed protests.
If necessary, this increased presence could extend past Wednesday, Skip Holbrook, City of Columbia police chief, said.
“This message has to be clear," Holbrook said at a press conference Friday. "We are going to be there to support and protect those that choose to exercise their First Amendment rights, but we will not tolerate any lawlessness or civil unrest. The response will be immediate, swift and certain.”
Extra police presence will include “mobile field force, hazardous device units, aviation, and tactical teams,” according to a South Carolina Department of Public Safety press release Friday.
“We’re not going to let property get damaged, and we’re not going to let people get hurt,” Holbrook said.
Columbia Police Department has received word of specific groups planning to protest at the Statehouse on Sunday and Wednesday, which is Inauguration Day. However, no permits have been officially filed and, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, no credible threats of violence during these protests have been made at this time.
“While we are not wanting anyone to live in fear, we are also wanting and urging you to use a common-sense approach to your day-to-day activities over the next few days,” City Manager Teresa Wilson said.
To reduce risk and increase public safety, the Statehouse will be closed to visitors from Saturday through Wednesday, and staff members in city facilities are being asked to work remotely on Wednesday.
“Unless there’s a need this weekend — and certainly on Inauguration Day — to be downtown, if you have no need to be downtown, I encourage you to stay home,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
Holbrook said officials are also “very focused” on the areas surrounding the Statehouse, such as businesses, residential areas and the USC campus, and will be monitoring and responding to any incidents that might arise in those places as well.
University President Bob Caslen sent out an email to students, faculty and staff this Friday saying the university’s Division of Law Enforcement and Safety is working with state, local and federal agencies to ensure student and campus safety throughout the next week.
"We are encouraging all members of our university community to please stay safe,” Caslen said in the email.
While officials at the press conference said road closures and a potential city curfew could be put in place out of caution, Benjamin said he is confident these measures will not be necessary.
“We’re preparing for anything, but we’re optimistic that the citizens will exercise the thoughtful discretion to make their views known, but to do it respecting each of us, our individual property, and certainly our public property,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin said "every preparation is being made to ensure the safety" of Columbia and Richland County residents.