Columbia mayor wants to block administrators from police crime scenes

cleblanc@thestate.comJuly 24, 2013 


Lonnie Randolph, president of the Columbia, S.C., branch of the NAACP in 2000.


— Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin on Wednesday called for a city policy that would keep municipal administrators from crime scenes and pushed for accelerating the selection of a new police chief.

Both of Benjamin’s announcements can be viewed as critical of city manager Teresa Wilson, who many, including some on City Council, say is Benjamin’s hand-picked successor to the retired Steve Gantt.

Wilson said she will not respond to Benjamin’s two-page statement. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on statements (council members) issue,” she said.

Many residents have questioned why the city manager went July 12 to a Five Points dry cleaning business where NAACP state president Lonnie Randolph was being arrested after a confrontation with an employee and later with police who were called to the scene.

Benjamin does not name Wilson, who has been in the top post almost seven months after being promoted from an assistant city manager position. But the mayor wrote in a news release: “Dr. Randolph’s arrest demonstrates why we should not have administrators or elected officials showing up at crime scenes unless specifically requested by law enforcement. However well-intentioned, it can send the wrong message and can create an appearance of impropriety and it needs to stop now.”

Wilson said at the time that it’s not uncommon for her to go to an incident and that she saw it as her responsibility to go the Tripp’s Fine Cleaning store because she was nearby and knew of Randolph’s long history of diabetes, which Randolph’s attorney said can make him act erratically. Wilson said she arrived after Randolph had been taken to a hospital.

Interim police chief Ruben Santiago said he did not go to the store but was on the phone with his officers. Santiago, who said he also knows of Randolph’s disease, said he did not instruct officers on which charges to file.

Benjamin wrote that he has asked the city’s legal staff to draft a policy, which he plans to present to City Council at its Aug. 6 meeting.

“An active crime scene is no place for politicians or administrators,” Benjamin wrote. He also wrote that only a judge or jury should consider dropping charges. “People must know that the criminal justice system works the same for all of us and does so without political interference and without special treatment for anyone.”

Efforts Wednesday to interview the mayor were unsuccessful. He did talk to WLTX television station.

Randolph, an optometrist who his attorney said has Type 1 diabetes, was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and trespassing. Type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, means the body cannot produce insulin.

Benjamin, in his statement Wednesday, urged that charges not be dropped against Randolph until a judge could hear the case. But days after the arrest of Randolph, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s top official in South Carolina, Santiago already announced that his department planned to drop all charges at the next court hearing.

And since the arrest, Joe McCulloch, a longtime lawyer for Randolph and the civil rights organization, said he consistently has told city officials the charges should be dropped only in a courtroom.

McCulloch said he will file a motion Thursday to have the charges dismissed by a city judge. A hearing to argue the matter is tentatively scheduled for Friday morning, McCulloch said, adding he plans to introduce sworn statements about Randolph’s health. One statement will be from the physician who is treating Randolph’s diabetes, the attorney said.

Santiago, as had Wilson, cited Randolph’s longtime diabetes as the reason for the NAACP official’s clashes with a store employee and with officers who answered the call for assistance and had to use physical force to get Randolph into a police cruiser.

The mayor also said in Wednesday’s statement that he plans to push for a faster decision on a permanent police chief. “It’s time to bring stability to CPD’s leadership.”

Santiago has been interim chief since April 22 when Randy Scott stepped down, citing post-traumatic stress disorder. The city has had six police chiefs or interim chiefs since late 2007.

Wilson has said that she is working on defining job qualifications for a new chief but that recent allegations against Santiago by a fired captain had diverted her attention from a national search. In April, she said the selection process would take six to eight months.

Benjamin’s statement also addressed the State Law Enforcement Division’s investigation of allegations by Capt. David Navarro as well as Santiago’s allegations that Navarro shredded documents and spread salacious rumors.

Navarro contends Santiago asked him to conspire to plant cocaine and a stolen gun in the car of senior assistant city manager Allison Baker. The plot was to remove Baker from his post, replace him with then-chief Scott and for Santiago to become chief.

“I firmly believe that we must allow that investigation to proceed without any political interference,” Benjamin wrote. “Our state’s law enforcement officers are very capable of conducting a thorough investigation. ... I will make absolutely certain that whatever SLED reports will be transparent and fully disclosed to the public.”

Benjamin did not say who was trying to exert political influence on the investigation.

Last week, a rival for the mayoral race in November, Councilman Moe Baddourah, issued a statement asking that the FBI investigate the allegations.

“Regardless of what becomes of the SLED investigation,” Baddourah wrote in a July 19 statement, “the people of Columbia must be able to have the peace of mind that any investigation is thorough and objective. ... a request for FBI involvement seems reasonable if it gives people an additional level of comfort.”

Baddourah’s campaign strategist, RJ Shealy, said the candidate had no comment about Benjamin’s reference to political interference.

“We don’t want to respond because we don’t think he was referring to Moe,” Shealy said.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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