Ride along with LIVE PD’s Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the West Columbia Police Department
By Melissa Sprouse Browne
“Let’s go,” he commanded, as soon as I arrived at headquarters on Two Notch Road in northeast Columbia. “We’ve got a meeting at six thirty,” Lt. Danny Brown said, ushering me quickly into the front seat of his mosaic black metallic 2017 Camaro super sport patrol car.
“Are we late?” I asked. “It’s just now six thirty, I didn’t know we were on a clock.” I folded myself into the small space beside the onboard computer and radio controller while buckling the seat belt. “Ok, let’s roll.”
As we were pulling out of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, another officer quickly approached the car and handed Lt. Brown a spare pair of handcuffs. Preparation is key to a successful night on patrol. Once out on Two Notch, we cruised over to a commercial complex of low, flat buildings and circled around towards the back of the parking lot, hidden by the storefronts from street view.
“Are we meeting the LIVE PD crew here?” I wondered. The McDaniels Golf Classic gala held earlier this year at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center offered both a live and silent auction with high interest items. Midway through the live auction was the item for which many were anxiously awaiting, a LIVE PD ride-along. Paddles raised high in a frenzied bidding war, the pricing was quickly out of my comfort zone, but I kept going. With hundreds of people screaming encouragement, the auctioneer right in my face and the spotlight on both of us, I won the bid. Tonight was my chance to ride with one of the popular A&E Network show’s favorites from RCSD, experiencing in-person the thrills of law enforcement made famous nationwide every Friday and Saturday night from nine until midnight.
The television crew wouldn’t be following us right now. Quickly, it became clear why we were away from the cameras, as we arrived at a pre-take down meeting with multiple law enforcement agencies, headed to a gang house with stolen police weapons. “The Gang Unit is going to hit a party with gang members at a house in a neighborhood near here,” Lt. Brown said. “We’re going with them.”
The situation was serious, with members from the RCSD Gang Unit, joined by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the City of Columbia Police Department, and officers from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) among others.
The gathering of approximately 20-30 officers in varying stages of riot gear with hoods, some in camouflage, advanced communications devices and multiple automatic weapons was planned to give those participating the time to coordinate between the different agencies on how to handle the actual takedown.
The prep meeting lasted approximately seventy-five minutes, with different groupings doing dry runs on the formation. While one group was working, other officers casually chatted, sharing friendly conversations on fishing and other benign topics while I followed my instruction to remain in the patrol vehicle.
“Danny, clear traffic for us on the way to the target,” asked one of the organizing officers. We positioned ourselves toward the front of the forming caravan, heading the line of at least 19 official vehicles, including the RCSD K-9 Unit.
“We’ll stay more towards the main road if they start shooting,” Lt. Brown said as we started to move. We ran Code Two, lights but no siren, as we swung out into traffic and angled the car across the main line to let all the action vehicles pull out in an uninterrupted line. Once they passed, we sped ahead to block the next intersection.
As we approached the target street, an officer from the City of Columbia moved to block the street with us, with everyone moving quickly down to the gang house. Lt. Brown and the City of Columbia officer completely closed off access to the road from any further traffic while the takedown was in progress.
The approach was from one yard over from the target, tight formations of law enforcement moving quickly with force into the subject property. No shots were fired as they took the house, and I could hear neighbors near my position cheering on the action. “They didn’t need any flash bangs,” commented Lt. Brown as he sank down into the driver’s seat beside me. “It went pretty well.”
After the takedown was over, we headed out for regular patrol. Tonight’s focus will be in Region Two, but as a member of the CAT Team (Community Action Team), he’s allowed to move between regions as the need arises.
“Keep an eye out for an older Crown Vic with Florida plates I’m looking for from last night, it’s white in color,” Lt Brown instructed.
“Will do,” I responded, knowing it was my new mission to help find that car. With a major in criminal justice and a minor in journalism, chasing criminals and then writing about them has been a large part of my life in the last several years.
Up next was a tour through a neighborhood in The Summit featured on LIVE PD a week earlier where drugs and a gun were found. Multiple people were sitting around on the curbs, just hanging out. As we circled around from one end of the street to the other, a young guy in one of the groups took off.
“He’s running,” Lt. Brown yelled as he slammed the car into park and sprinted towards the guy who went between the townhouses. I heard him on the radio in about three minutes’ time, “875, central, one detained.” (His call number with the department is 875.)
The suspect and Lt. Brown approach the patrol car, where the male suspect is splayed out onto the front hood. Once he gets the suspect calmed down, he begins to search him, tossing items onto the hood for inspection, including a bag of weed.
The suspect is wearing a black t-shirt with a teddy bear in a tuxedo graphic “Polo Bear by Ralph Lauren” on the front, a heavy gold chain with a faux-diamond letter ‘B’ and a row of gold top teeth. While Lt. Brown works with the suspect, a young boy walks up and says, “Hey, man, I got my grill, too,” commenting to the suspect on his own gold dental work. The suspect starts dancing back and forth and spitting over and over.
“Hey little badass, take yourself home,” Lt. Brown told the interloper just as a crowd began to form in a circle around us. “875, central, can you start another unit over here?”
A girl on a bike rides up and inquires, “What did you do?” She says she’s his sister.
“Ok, what’s his name, then?”
“I’m not saying.” She starts complaining about her brother being held up by the police and gets boisterous support from the crowd. Central called back, no one’s coming, we’re on our own.
His name won’t come back in the computer, which is no surprise. Another person from the crowd claimed to be his brother, so Lt. Brown sent him to get the suspect’s ID. Brother or not, the guy came back with a creased State of South Carolina Identification Card (not a driver’s license), which did register in the system. He wasn’t currently wanted or on probation, so he’s likely to get a break. The calls for a cage unit led to a long wait for another deputy with a back seat to arrive and, when she did, the decision was made to simply write a ticket and let the suspect go.
“You can’t run from the police,” Lt. Brown announced to the crowd. “If you don’t live out here, you can’t be out here.” They began to disburse and he got back in the car. A BMW he was looking for just rolled up in the neighborhood, but by the time we got over to where it went, the driver was already parked and inside one of the houses.
“I think that cars has drugs hidden in it,” he explained. So, we hid outside the neighborhood, waiting on people to pull out in hopes the BMW would be one of them. Instead, we caught a car from the other direction, the rolling hamsters in a Kia Soul with purple ground effects and green paint. A quick stop about their choice of exterior lighting and we were on our way once again.
Cruising through the Village at Sandhills, we spotted a Jaguar at the car wash with expired tags. Why someone was washing his car at ten o’clock at night remains a mystery. “The guy washing it is a drug dealer who’s dropping dope to a guy in a black challenger I arrested recently,” Lt. Brown said. He gets out with the dealer and has to resort to taking a picture of the computer screen confirming the expired tags to prove it to the guy.
Before this situation can develop further, a Code Three call hits the airwaves. An officer is calling, “help, help!” off Wilson road in Blythewood. He lost his body cam while fighting with a suspect and tumbling down an embankment. We pealed out onto the road with lights and sirens blaring, heading to the officer in need.
The raw horsepower of the Camaro SS was breathtaking, with powerful stops and starts as we maneuvered through moderate nighttime traffic. Drivers seem uncertain how to react, with many just stopping in the roadway instead of getting out of the way. Lt. Brown’s familiarity with his patrol area is evident, as he’s able to take a back route towards Blythewood that cuts us away from the heavier traffic. As we’re five minutes out, many units have converged with the officer in trouble ahead of us, so we’re called off the scene.
The rest of the evening was filled with numerous traffic stops, riding around with the windows down, smelling for weed and investigating suspicious persons and activity. We ran several calls with Officer Kevin Lawrence, or K-Law as he’s known by LIVE PD nation.
Anyone playing the popular online Reality TV Bingo (formerly known as LIVE PD bingo) would have a card full after tonight’s patrol. Several guns found, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a foot chase, guns drawn and handcuffs used were all highlights of the evening. At the end of the patrol, we returned to RCSD headquarters to turn in all the evidence collected. The evidence room is a secure area with a place for everything, including items that require refrigeration. The surprise was drug paraphernalia isn’t retained, but disposed of in the garbage. The marijuana grinder had powdery shavings of the drug inside, but was otherwise empty and discarded.
WEST COLUMBIA POLICE DEPARTMENT
Up next was a daytime patrol with Officer Eugene Hammill with the West Columbia Police Department. Their 2016 Officer of the Year, Hammill has been with the department for the past four years. He’s always had an interest in law enforcement and began his career as a dispatcher with the South Carolina Highway Patrol, followed by a stint in the United States Marine Corp.
Before we hit the streets, Lt. Marion Boyce provided a thorough tour of their extensive armory. “We have variety of weapons, with Glock 22s and 23s as some of our service weapons,” Boyce explained. “Pump shotguns are still issued, the duty one is a medium range and our rifles are for long range. Our geography is too tight for very long range shooting, but we want the officers and citizens to have as much protection as possible.”
The most unusual weapons system they can deploy is the TrackingPoint rifle. With a requirement for wi-fi and batteries, this rifle is paired with a computer system for a very complex operating system. “This system is made up of a Daniel Defense lower body, a DD-M4V7, the barrel is from Daniel Defense, as well as a modular float rail, all combined would be a two thousand dollar rifle, even before you add the high tech features on it,” he explained.
TrackingPoint offers a back up battery and a charger, but this item is not an all-day deployable weapon. “With the TrackingPoint setup, you can do the same thing with an untrained shooter on this rifle as you could with a trained sniper on a regular rifle,” Boyce suggested. Batteries are housed in the stock, making it a fixed stock and not adjustable. A cable connects a control box that goes into the rifle’s trigger, allowing it to fire at the optimum moment at a pre-determined target as a precision guided weapons system.
Once you paint the target, the computer tracks it and does all the calculations for you to make sure the bullet is fired at the right moment. The connection to a mobile app allows you to record and review all activities with the weapon, even from a distance. If a supervisor is not right beside the shooter and wants to see what he sees through the scope, if he has the connected app on his phone, he can approve or disapprove the shot in real time, just as if he is the one holding the weapon.
The department is committed to advanced technology for the officers. As we approach the Dodge Challenger belonging to Hammill, the automatic license plate readers (or LPRs) are visible on the back of the patrol car. “They automatically read every plate they see,” he said. “If a plate is expired or stolen, it sounds an alert. You have to watch out for false alerts, though. It reads signs and fences as all ones, so it thinks it’s a stolen tag.” These readers are a difference from Richland County, as Lt. Brown would manually run every tag on his mobile computer whenever he was behind a vehicle. Here in West Columbia, it happens automatically.
The daytime patrol was quieter, with an assortment of traffic stops, checking in with Cayce Public Safety and the Highway Patrol on an interstate fatality and looking at suspicious persons at known areas of criminal activity, such as motels and parking lots.
“West Columbia 64, a report of a male running down the road with a forty-two inch TV on his back, near Ontario going towards Park Place,” called the dispatcher. “Stolen from Osage Avenue.”
We took off towards that area, looking for the suspect. Moving through various apartment parking lots and up and down streets near the initial report area, there was no activity of any sort. Then, we spotted a Chrysler 300 with an open trunk and a large object sticking out of the back. The closer we got, the more it became obvious the object was an upside-down car seat and not a television. False alarm.
The search continued for almost an hour before Hammill had an idea. “Let’s check the marijuana fort.” What in the world?
“There’s an area between several houses that’s totally wooded. Back a while ago, someone built a lean-to with odds and ends and we’ve caught people back there many times, smoking dope,” he explained. “It’s a good hiding place, so if our guy is on foot, he might want to stash the TV to come back for later.”
We stopped beside the wooded area and Hammill got out and headed down the worn path to the drug hideout. He only made it about ten yards before he discovered the stolen television, propped up behind a large tree.
Five units respond to our location, one to pick up the stolen merchandise and the others to redouble our search efforts. With the extra manpower, we were called off the search and sent back to patrol, protecting and serving the citizens of West Columbia.