Columbia police chief's job in jeopardy

Carter's refusal to hand over crash probe to outside agency angers City Council

abeam@thestate.com nophillips@thestate.comMay 7, 2010 

Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter, who has been staring down City Council over his decision to investigate Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin's car accident, could lose his job next week.

Carter refused to hand over the investigation to an outside agency against the wishes of City Council, which is concerned about the public's perception of special treatment. But the tipping point seems to be Carter's request for a state attorney general's opinion regarding what City Council can and cannot tell him to do.

"I just need to think about this whole situation on requesting an AG opinion on whether or not I have the authority to direct him to do something," said city manager Steve Gantt, who under state law is the police chief's supervisor. "I have to figure out what in the world he is thinking about and make a decision on what I think is in the long-term best interest for the city of Columbia."

Thursday, S.C. Highway Patrol director Mark Keel said his agency will not take over the investigation but would review it if Carter asks.

Gantt said he has suggested for two weeks that Carter request a review of the April 21 car accident, in which Benjamin's Mercedes collided with a Toyota Tercel making a right turn onto Gervais Street from Pickens Street at 5:43 a.m. The chief has not done that, Gantt said.

"I'm going to ask him one more time, and then I'm going to direct him to do it," Gantt said.

Carter called The State newspaper Thursday to say he would not comment on the Benjamin accident until the investigation was complete. However, he hung up before a reporter had a chance to ask him about his job. Repeated attempts to reach Carter again were unsuccessful. Police spokesman Brick Lewis said he had given Carter a message requesting a returned call, and that was all he could do.

Police have released few details about the accident. That also is a problem for Gantt, who said he will ask Carter to begin giving him weekly updates until the investigation is complete.

City Attorney Ken Gaines told council members on Thursday via e-mail that Gantt has the authority to fire Carter. And Gantt can issue procedural directives to Carter, Gaines said in the e-mail, which would include directing him to ask the state Highway Patrol to review the results of the Benjamin investigation.

In his assessment, Gaines quoted from city ordinance 10-3, which states: "The chief of police is required to perform such additional duties as may be assigned to him by the city manager."

But Gantt acknowledged that the police chief, more than any other city position, is a "very, very high-profile, key player in city government" and for that reason a decision must not be made lightly.

"You can't take any kind of disciplinary action you would take regarding the police chief," he said. "It has to be done very delicately. You have to make sure you are making the right decision."

Carter was hired in March 2008 with the mission of bringing stability to a department that suffered from low morale and endured a public scandal after it was revealed 21 officers had cheated on an online certification test.

Carter mostly has done that, bringing the department's staffing levels back to 100 percent for the first time in 10 years and winning the support of most police officers.

The newly formed Columbia chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, which consists mostly of Columbia police officers, supports Carter, according to Jon VanHouten, the association's spokesman.

"He is an excellent chief for the department and exactly the kind of leadership we need," VanHouten said.

But Carter has been slow to gain the confidence of City Council members, many of whom feel his leadership style leads to confrontation, not solutions.

"I want to know what he's doing, because he doesn't seem to have moved the police department further along than I had hoped for at this stage," Councilman Daniel Rickenmann said Thursday.

That attitude trickled into the public space Thursday, when WVOC radio host Keven Cohen spent 261/2 hours on his radio call-in show calling for Carter to be fired.

"Everyone from the mayor to fellow council folk are telling you to hand this over and you are not doing it," Cohen said of Carter after his radio show ended. "You are doing everything you can to stall, and it smacks of special treatment."

Sampson Pringle, president of the Belmont Community Association, said he was struggling to understand why city police asked the Highway Patrol to investigate a 2008 fender-bender involving Councilman Sam Davis, but have not asked the patrol to investigate a car wreck involving the city's mayor-elect.

"Not that he probably would not do (a good job) - I'm not saying that," Pringle said. "But what I am saying is that it looks better."

City Council members want to figure out how they can solve the problem of public perception about the investigation, which Mayor Bob Coble has described as an "institutional conflict" in which city police should not investigate elected officials who are direct supervisors of the police department.

Coble plans to bring it up Monday during a special City Council meeting that Coble says will be open to the public. Council was supposed to meet today, but canceled that meeting and, hours later, called a new one for Monday.

"It has nothing to do with police competency," Coble said. "It can't be overcome through hard work or anything else. The perception of having a conflict is the same as having a conflict. For the mayor-elect to govern effectively and the for the city to operate with integrity, it has to be resolved."

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