COLUMBIA, SC — City leaders aren’t close to hiring a permanent chief, the police department’s leadership is scattering and a new school year that thrusts tens of thousands of partying students and football fans into downtown is weeks away.
And the Columbia Police Department is tangled in yet another scandal among its brass.
But the city manager and City Council are standing behind those who are left to lead the department, including the accused interim chief.
“I’ve got some great captains who will step up their game,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said late last week.
The latest turmoil at the top comes from a fired captain who alleges in a sworn statement that interim Chief Ruben Santiago asked him to plant cocaine and a stolen gun in the car of an assistant city manager who oversees the department. The plot was to arrest and remove senior assistant city manager Allison Baker so the chief could take Baker’s job and that Santiago, then the No. 2 officer, could become chief, according to Navarro.
The plot was hatched six to eight months ago, Navarro said. That was before Chief Randy Scott disappeared in April for three weeks and then resigned, citing work-related stress. The stress included a lawsuit by fired deputy Chief Isa Greene that alleges Scott allowed his workplace romances to interfere with hiring decisions and that he ran a workplace hostile to women.
In the months immediately before and after Scott returned to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, leadership has been shaken:
• Assistant Chief Les Wiser, a former FBI agent, is stepping into a significantly reduced role next month as he takes a teaching position at the University of South Carolina.
• Greene took a couple of decades of police experience with her and is fighting to get her job back.
• J.P. Smith, a 25-year veteran who oversaw investigations, was fired for the same reason as Greene. They oversaw the botched search for missing lobbyist Tom Sponseller. Officers missed a suicide note and failed to search a parking garage storage unit where Sponseller’s body was found 10 days after he was reported missing.
• Navarro – another of Scott’s handpicked team from their time together at the sheriff’s department – is locked in a fight with Santiago and has been fired. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating.
That leaves Santiago as the only remaining member of Scott’s management team.
Scott’s arrival in October 2010 occurred as a handful of department veterans retired and opened the door for promotions for younger officers to commanders.
Then, Scott flamed out last spring after having earned rave reviews from his bosses and many residents.
City residents have seen this dearth of leadership before.
The pattern of failed police leadership in the capital city’s police force dates back five decades.
Chiefs, captains and lieutenants have been convicted, fired, demoted quietly or just plain run out of town. Careers have ended or have been damaged. The shake-ups happened regardless of whether the city brought in fresh chiefs from elsewhere or promoted them from within.
One chief’s story reads like fiction: Arthur Hess initially was billed as the department’s savior. Then he was videotaped accepting a bribe from a high-profile businessman with cozy ties to the department, and fled with a mistress before being caught with her at Disney World.
Standing by Santiago
City manager Teresa Wilson has said repeatedly she has been presented “zero” evidence that the interim chief has done anything wrong.
For that reason, Wilson said last week, she won’t put Santiago on administrative leave while SLED investigates Navarro and his accusations against Santiago.
“This is really something, that someone can discredit an organization without facts,” Wilson said. “It sends a bad message in general ... that people can make unsubstantiated allegations and we would react to that to the level of relieving someone of their duties.
“Everything else that I do have facts about says he’s doing a good job as interim chief,” she said.
Councilman Cameron Runyan agrees with the city manager’s assessment.
“If every time someone throws around allegations at the (city) staff, we put them on suspension,” Runyan said, “then anybody who has a vendetta, they could just derail their careers.
“He has my support as SLED investigates this,” Runyan said of Santiago. “If there is any evidence that this is true, clearly, there will be very serious consequences.”
Santiago said the decision to keep him on the job while SLED agents investigate was Wilson’s. The city’s internal investigation ended, Santiago said, when Wilson, who oversees all city employees, decided to fire Navarro.
Santiago has not hidden his interest in being chief. His voice recording on his mobile phone voice mail says, “This is Chief Santiago.” His lawyer in a slander lawsuit Santiago filed last week against Navarro, Rep. Todd Rutherford, introduced the interim chief to fellow lawmakers as the legislative session wound down.
Should Santiago be on leave?
Under police department policy, allegations of criminal wrongdoing are turned over to SLED or another appropriate outside agency, Santiago said.
Placing an officer on administrative leave is ultimately up to the chief but only after an internal investigation is far enough along and has found “reasonable evidence,” he said.
About a year ago, Santiago said he kept Navarro on the job while Navarro was under an internal affairs investigation for an accusation of using excessive force.
“We’re accused of everything all the time,” Santiago said. “I can’t just go around putting everybody on administrative leave. We have to have evidence.”
In April, Wilson and Benjamin pledged to launch a national search to find a chief and to have citizen involvement in the selection. At the time, Wilson said she hoped to post a job description within 60 to 90 days. That deadline is fast approaching.
Wilson said the Navarro/Santiago fallout took her attention from other important work, including launching the search for a new chief.
But Benjamin said the SLED probe should not hinder the search for a chief. Further, the department will navigate its way around the gaps in leadership.
“We’ll work through all of this,” the mayor said. “The (police department’s) work’s getting done.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.