Columbia City Council, mayor need to let next police chief do his job

The State | Opinion Column | Columbia, SC

I served on Columbia’s police chief search committee and am confident that we submitted an outstanding group of finalists to City Manager Teresa Wilson. I hope our mayor and City Council will take steps to ensure that our next chief is given the opportunity to succeed.

This is not a sure thing.

From the start, there have been attacks on the integrity of the search process; they are without basis. We reviewed dozens of highly qualified and experienced applicants. Our procedures precluded any member from having disproportionate influence. Ms. Wilson and her staff provided administrative support and a fairly demanding timeline; we had unfettered discretion in our work.

There is wisdom to be found in the collective judgment of seasoned and experienced folks; that was the role of our committee. After hundreds of hours, we reached almost universal consensus on the finalists.

We were asked to identify the top candidates to serve as Columbia’s next chief of police; we were not asked to comment on the wisdom of continuing a large municipal law enforcement agency as opposed to creating a joint county/city agency, under the control of a single, elected county sheriff.

Frankly, many of us who are enticed by the idea of allowing our outstanding (current) sheriff to lead a joint force are somewhat cynical: We are resigned that elected and appointed city officials will only stay out of police department business in the face of a sheriff who commands more votes than any member of city government. City Council can end the cynicism. Other city governments do better. We must do better.

It has been particularly disturbing to see the qualifications of two minority finalists questioned publically, with one even being questioned based on age. Those candidates were undeserving of such attacks, which can give rise to civil liability.

I hope our new chief will have the wisdom and integrity to navigate city politics successfully, without compromising integrity or sacrificing control of the force. I hope the new chief will have the courage and fortitude to stand up to those who want to interfere in police business, dictate personnel decisions and meddle in departmental affairs. But he may not survive unless our city’s elected leaders remedy the operational and political problems that brought the city to this point.

Our committee was repeatedly confronted with concerns about those problems and the need for changes. I hope that our mayor and City Council will adopt written policies implementing the following recommendations:

Elected officials should receive training concerning state and federal employment laws and the potential risks and liabilities for violating those laws.

• Our chief of police should report directly to the city manager.

•  Our city should negotiate an employment contract with our police chief, as do most similarly sized cities.

The salary range for our police chief should be increased.

•  Most importantly, our city should adopt a policy governing contact with the police chief and, especially, department personnel. The policy should ensure transparency and protect all from political pressure or interference or even the appearance thereof.

Elected and appointed public officials and “community leaders” have no business at crime scenes. Our police chief should not be on speed dial for every member of City Council. The police force must be free to enforce the law, regardless of the identity of lawbreakers.

Our rank-and-file police deserve continuity and outstanding, principled leadership. Only our mayor and City Council can change the political culture that has created the harmful cycle of turnover at the top of the Columbia Police Department. To do so, they first must restrain themselves.

Mr. Ozmint has served as an assistant solicitor, chief prosecutor for the State Grand Jury, agency chief counsel and state corrections director; contact him at jon@ozmint.com.