Columbia's Homeland Security Department - with its 42 employees and $2.2 million annual budget - would be absorbed by the city's police department under a proposal being pitched by the city's assistant city manager for public safety.
Mike King, who has been looking for "efficiencies" since he was hired last year, said it makes "common sense" for the city's police department to also handle the city's homeland security functions, which include directing traffic for city-sponsored events, guarding the city's water and sewer plants and patrolling neighborhoods for fallen tree limbs and damaged street signs.
City Council members will consider the proposal at their Wednesday meeting.
King said he was planning to make the change in July at the start of the new budget year. But Homeland Security Director Harold Reaves' decision to retire two weeks ago to work for a law enforcement consulting company hastened King's decision.
It's unclear how the police department would use homeland security's 42 employees, most of whom are community safety officers, not sworn police officers, and cannot carry weapons.
Police Chief Tandy Carter has said repeatedly he does not have enough sworn police officers to meet the department's minimum patrol standards. In February 2009 he asked City Council members for an additional 94 officers - 52 patrol officers and 42 investigators - but the request was denied because of budget constraints.
A federal grant last summer allowed Carter to hire 18 additional officers for a three-year period. The hires gave the department 375 sworn police officers, filling all of the department's budgeted positions for the first time in a decade.
By adding the Homeland Security Department's budget, Carter could hire more officers.
But only seven of Homeland Security's 42 employees are sworn police officers, King said. The city would have to pay for the remaining 34 employees to be trained and certified by the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy.
"Let's say, like, tomorrow I say, 'Make all CSOs police officers,'" King said. "Well, we may have some CSOs who don't want to be police officers. They would have the option of staying or not. We may have some CSOs, because of different qualifications, who may not qualify to be full sworn police officers."
King said he has given Carter 60 days to review the Homeland Security Department and make recommendations on how to best incorporate it with the police department.
Carter said he wants to make sure the Homeland Security employees "feel secure about their jobs."
"I don't want people to come in and be part of an organization and feel threatened," Carter said. "Homeland Security has a function. ... My goal is to make it as seamless as we possibly can."
Carter said one of Homeland Security's most important function is coordinating the city's disaster response.
"How would you handle the situation in the city if you had 5,000 dead or 5,000 injured, whether it be by a hurricane or something like that," Carter said. "That's a core function of Homeland Security."
City Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said he supports moving Homeland Security into the police department. But he said he's not sure whether making the community safety officers sworn police officers is the best decision.
"I think that's an important role, and I don't think we should discount it," Rickenmann said.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.