Columbia turmoil

Columbia police chief takes leave; could have been disciplined

cleblanc@thestate.comApril 2, 2013 

  • WHY THEY LEFT The city of Columbia has had six police chiefs in the past seven years.

    Dean Crisp, retired in September 2007 amid criticism that he allowed family and friends at crime scenes

    Harold Reaves, interim, left in November 2007 to attend to unspecified family matters but had come under fire for rehiring an officer Crisp had fired and reversing the suspensions and demotions given by Crisp to more than a dozen officers for misconduct while taking an online re-certification test

    Norman Caldwell, interim, until May 2008 when Tandy Carter was hired

    Tandy Carter, fired in May 2010 for refusing to turn over to state police the investigation into then-mayor-elect Steve Benjamin’s car accident

    Carl Burke, interim, retired earlier than expected, in October 2010, after it was discovered that he hadn’t completed certification to carry a weapon since 2007

    Randy Scott, took the job as an interim in October 2010 and was named chief in January 2011

— Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott took an unexpected leave of absence Tuesday as the city manager said she had been considering disciplinary action against him.

City manager Teresa Wilson told The State newspaper that Scott’s City Hall bosses had become aware of workplace issues and had talked to the chief about the problems. She would not elaborate on what those problems are.

Scott asked for an indefinite leave for personal reasons. Had he not, Wilson said it’s “possible” she would have taken personnel action against him.

“Since I became city manager, there have been a few instances that were brought to my attention,” said Wilson, who became the city’s chief administrative officer in December. “I’ve talked to the chief about them, and his supervisor talked to him about them.”

Efforts to reach the popular chief on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Scott will be paid his normal salary, which is $112,000 yearly, during the period of leave. He is using accumulated time off, but the date that expires was not immediately available.

Asked if the complaints she has heard amount to misconduct in office, Wilson said, “I do not have any substantiated reason to believe that.”

“He has requested an indefinite period of time and that’s what I felt was appropriate to grant,” Wilson said. “My every hope is that chief Scott returns to his full responsibilities.”

Ruben Santiago was named acting chief. He had been the department’s deputy chief. He will have administrative help from Assistant Chief Les Wiser, city officials said.

Ups and downs

In his 2½ years, Scott has overhauled the department, earning praise from his supervisors and the community.

He has installed a new command staff, created multiple specialized units, hired dozens of officers and improved the department’s records management and crime analysis. He quickly became a high-profile figure who showed up at everything from crime scenes to neighborhood meetings to protests to major festivals.

But he has had problems during his tenure – both professional and personal.

The most embarrassing moment for the department came last February when city police officers failed to find the body of a lobbyist who had been reported missing. Tom Sponseller had shot himself in a room off a parking garage in his downtown office building, and his car was parked just feet from that door. But officers did not find him for 10 days even after conducting multiple searches of the building. They also failed to find an empty gun box and an apparent suicide note in Sponseller’s desk drawer.

Scott fired two of his top officers over the bungled search.

Last month, one of those officers, a deputy chief, Isa Greene, a 33-year department veteran, sued him and the department. She alleges discrimination and claims in the suit the department “allowed a hostile work environment to exist based upon unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, verbal and physical conduct of a lewd sexual nature and sexual favoritism that is so severe and pervasive as to render the working conditions in the CPD psychologically intolerable for female officers.”

In the lawsuit, Greene also offered examples of female officers receiving preferential treatment after entering into relationships with male officers.

Greene said she had denied a woman a job because she lacked qualifications but that Scott overrode her decision “because he was having a relationship with the female employee,” the lawsuit said.

Scott and the department denied Greene’s accusations.

Greene also spoke of the alleged relationship during a public personnel hearing as she tried to get her job back. But Assistant Chief Les Wiser, who was representing the police department, said that the chief’s dating choices had nothing to do with the Sponseller investigation’s missteps.

Meetings with city bosses

Scott’s surprise leave capped two days of talks with his immediate supervisor, senior assistant city manager Allison Baker. On Tuesday, Baker took the issue to Wilson, who approved the leave.

The chief put his request into writing, but Wilson said the city’s legal staff has advised her that the letter is not subject to an open-records request because it deals with a personnel matter.

“I want to reassure the public that my ultimate responsibility ... is to maintain the integrity of the department,” Wilson said. She said she feels “very comfortable” with the department being in the hands of Santiago and Wiser.

The personal leave of absence was announced in a news release emailed to the media Tuesday afternoon on behalf of Wilson. No explanation was given as to the reason, but the statement said Scott had requested the leave.

“I’m just as shocked as you are,” Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said about an hour after the city made the announcement.

Scott was hired away from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in October 2010 when he was named interim police chief. He was hired permanently in January 2011.

In December, Scott resigned to take advantage of changes in the state retirement system. He was rehired 15 days later. After he was reinstated as chief, Scott said his absence had been the hardest 15 days of his career and he intended to be the city’s police chief for the long haul.

That’s why the sudden decision to take a leave of absence caught people off guard.

City leaders react

At-large Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, one of council’s most senior members, said she learned of Scott’s departure Tuesday from Wilson.

Devine said she had no advance knowledge that the chief was stepping aside. Council had not discussed any problems with Scott’s leadership of the department or his job performance, she said.

“Randy has been a great chief,” Devine said. “As far as I know this has nothing to do with job performance. I don’t have any information that this has to do with anything other than he’s having personal issues he feels he needs to deal with.”

Scott has gotten divorced since becoming chief.

Asked if she had any information or concerns about misconduct or judgment so bad it could cost Scott his job, Devine said, “I’m not answering that. I don’t have reason to believe that. I know of nothing legitimate.”

Councilman Cameron Runyan said he, too, was taken aback.

“I really don’t know any more than you do,” the at-large member of council, said of Tuesday’s announcement.

Wilson called Runyan to tell him the news, the councilman said.

“Teresa said, ‘It’s a personnel matter so I can’t discuss it,’” Runyan said. “You’re the city manager and that’s your staff. I didn’t press her. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin is on vacation and could not be reached, his aide, Michael Wukela said. “It’s a personnel issue, so he wouldn’t comment on it,” Wukela said, directing inquiries to Wilson.

Devine, Plaugh and Runyan all said Scott’s job status had not been discussed in a closed-door meeting, something allowed--but not required--by the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Efforts to reach council members Sam Davis, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Moe Baddourah, a mayoral candidate, were unsuccessful.

While council has seemed pleased with Scott’s performance, that body does not have the authority to hire or fire the police chief. That responsibility lies with Wilson.

Columbia has been known for having a revolving door in its police chief’s office. Scott was the city’s sixth chief in seven years.

The lack of consistency was among the troubles that have plagued the capital city’s police force. Many had thought the city had turned a corner with Scott’s hiring.

On Tuesday, Devine said the circumstances of Scott’s absence and Santiago’s naming as acting officer should not be as unsettling as earlier shakeups. “This is nothing like what we’ve had in the past,” she said.

Scott was hired by former city manager Steve Gantt, who has said his decision to name Scott as police chief was one of the best in his tenure. Last year, Benjamin nominated Scott for the prestigious Strom Thurmond Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement, and Scott was selected as one of the four S.C. winners by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Scott was noted for the department’s community partnerships, customer service and pro-active law enforcement efforts.

Tige Watts, who lives in Brandon Acres/Cedar Terrace and is active in neighborhood associations both on the local and national level, said he recently sent an email to several police officers, including Scott, about an uptick in car break-ins in his community.

Scott was the first to reply, and he attended the next neighborhood meeting, he said.

“He’s gone a long way in building partnerships,” Watts said. “There’s been more visible, proactive enforcement. There’s been more of a dedication to community policing.”

But Scott’s relationship with the community has not been completely rosy.

Repeated violence in Five Points has caused angst between him and the Five Points Association and young people who believe officers have a misplaced focus on underage drinking while they ignore more serious criminals.

Sheriff Leon Lott, who is Scott’s former boss and a mentor, said he had spoken to Scott about the leave but would not offer reasons behind it.

“A chief of police is a very stressful job because you get pulled in so many directions,” Lott said. “He has so many bosses – a city manager, city council, community leaders.

“He’s been trying to deal with a lot of difficult issues. I think it’s smart on his part. If needs to step away for his mental health’s sake, it’s good for him.”

Devine said she’s hopeful that Scott does not leave permanently.

“My prayers are with him, and I hope we get him back,” she said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307 and LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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