Editorial: Dysfunction lives at the Columbia Police Department

July 21, 2013 

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Columbia-Richland Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins escort Randy Scott away from his announcement that he is resigning as Columbia police chief.

JEFF BLAKE — jblake@thestate.com Buy Photo

— WHAT ON earth is going on at the Columbia Police Department? It’s a question we’ve had to ask far too often over the years.

When Randy Scott joined the department in late 2010, it seemed that the revolving door at the chief’s office had been sealed. He worked to improve morale, beef up the workforce, raise the level of professionalism and restore the department’s image. But two and a half years later, Mr. Scott resigned after an unexplained leave, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Interim chief Reuben Santiago took over, promising not to miss a beat. And for a couple of months, it seemed that he wouldn’t. But in recent weeks, things have taken one stunningly bad turn after another.

First, the department is facing well-deserved scrutiny over the July 1 shooting death of bagel baker Kelly Hunnewell.

Two suspects charged with the murder were out on bail for other violent crimes. In addition, one of them had been identified as a burglary suspect 10 days before Ms. Hunnewell’s death, but Columbia police and prosecutors had failed to seek an arrest. Why weren’t these men behind bars?

Mayor Steve Benjamin has established a panel to review police policies, including one that requires police to get approval from a prosecutor before asking a judge for an arrest warrant. It also will suggest changes in the process that allows offenders to be released on bond.

As if the Hunnewell murder weren’t cause enough for concern, another troubling matter has arisen: After being fired for failing to report to duty, secretly recording a phone call with a supervisor and spreading rumors, Capt. David Navarro accused Chief Santiago of concocting a scheme to frame assistant city manager Allison Baker on drug and weapons charges. Mr. Santiago has denied the claims and sued Mr. Navarro for slander.

After Chief Santiago asked SLED to investigate whether Mr. Navarro illegally shredded documents and stole money from a police foundation, Mayor Benjamin wisely requested the agency expand the probe to include the whole sordid mess, including Mr. Navarro’s claims against the chief.

And the problems keep mounting. After state NAACP president Lonnie Randolph was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest — charges that are expected to be dropped due to medical reasons — city manager Teresa Wilson responded to the scene. That is unacceptable. While Ms. Wilson hires and fires the police chief, hers is not a law enforcement position; her appearance smacks of special treatment.

It’s obvious that city police need a clear policy giving them discretion to ensure that dangerous suspects are jailed and that Ms. Wilson should allow officers to do their jobs.

We don’t know what to think of Mr. Navarro’s outrageous-sounding claims: They could be simply the babblings of a disgruntled former employee, but the outrageous isn’t always false, which is why SLED’s inquiry is necessary.

Whatever happens, Columbia officials must root out the dysfunction that lives at the police department. Hiring a competent, credible, seasoned chief would be a start.

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