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Police chief threatens Facebook pot critic with arrest

The Interim Police Chief of Columbia, S.C., appears not to appreciate those who suggest his department should catch shooters rather than pot users. He replies that he suspects the poster "might be a criminal."

The interim chief, without threatening expression. WISTV screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

The police don't have a perfect record with respect to social networking.

Sometimes, they appear to show the nature of their underskirts for all to see.

One example may be Ruben Santiago, the interim police chief of Columbia, S.C.

As Popehat reports, Santiago leaped to his department's Facebook page to crow about the seizure of $40,000 worth of marijuana.

Not everyone was quite as impressed. One poster, Brandon Whitmer, tossed a riposte: "Maybe u should arrest the people shooting people in 5 points instead of worrying about a stoner that's not bothering anyone. It'll be legal here one day anyway."

Some might imagine this was a cogent argument. Not interim chief Santiago. For someone, subsequently revealed by the department to be Santiago himself, replied with what many saw as an unveiled threat.

He wrote on the department's page: "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 old First Amendment thing is feeling a little pressure these days. Perhaps it's healthy for residents of Columbia to know that sharing their views may give the police suspicion that they might be criminals.

The interim chief's post was quickly removed. However, not before several people captured a memento of it. Perhaps they might have been criminals too.

The chief, though, decided to fill the next interim with more comment. He posted:

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, threat? [sic] Why would someone feel threaten [sic] 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.

Some might be impressed that Santiago chose one of Eric Schmidt's favorite arguments -- the one that begins: "If you haven't done anything wrong..."

Dear Facebook posters of Columbia, you are no different from gang members. You congregate on the Facebook corner and you're up to no good. If you advocate for pot use, then you might be a criminal.

Surely, this can't really have been Santiago himself, can it? Police chiefs are wise people, with considerable political skills.

Well, Ken White at Popehat secured confirmation from the police department.

It read:

Chief Santiago did write those two posts. I believe the original comment was misconstrued. I appreciate you reaching out to CPD. 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. The man who was so-called threatened openly admitted that he was not offended and appreciated the work of CPD.

It is, indeed, easy for social-media posts to be misunderstood. It is also easy for those with developed reading skills to believe that the posts mean what they actually say, rather than what a PR person claims they were meant to say.

Some posters to the police's Facebook page have expressed emotions ranging from rage to disbelief at Santiago's forthright edicts.

One, Bach Zeeshop, even offered: "Everyone should call their crime tip hotline and report Mr. Santiago for breaking the law under Title 18 Chapter 242, and 18 U.S.C. 875 (interstate communication of threat to injure). Seriously. 1-888-CRIME-SC."

Another, Michael Nelson, who said he was a security guard at a hospital, mused: "Also in a position such as CHIEF you might want to use spell-check when you type idiotic comments, you might be taken more seriously when you don't misspell words (okay not really.)"

I am not sure of the exact timeline of Santiago's confirmation as permanent police chief. However, if the department's Facebook timeline is anything to go by, there might be quite some opposition.

All from people who might be criminals, of course.