Bolton: Columbia officials should avoid crime scenes

Associate EditorAugust 8, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— COLUMBIA City Council members might not remember former Highway Patrol Commander J.H. “Red” Lanier, but the incident that led to his resignation 23 years ago this month is instructive in the discussion over Mayor Steve Benjamin’s proposal to bar city administrators and council members from crime scenes.

Mr. Lanier retired earlier than he intended because of public outcry over his appearance at a traffic stop involving Fred Verinder, the FBI chief in South Carolina who was investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the highway department. After one of Mr. Lanier’s troopers stopped Mr. Verinder, handcuffed him and told him that he would be charged with DUI, the agent called the commander, who came to the scene.

While Mr. Lanier didn’t directly tell the trooper what to do, he did tell him that he would appreciate any help he could give the FBI agent. The trooper ultimately only charged the agent with speeding.

That led to a public brouhaha over whether Mr. Lanier flexed his muscles to aid the agent.

Let’s be real. When Mr. Lanier made the trip to the scene — a trip he wouldn’t have made for the everyday Joe — it was an act of preferential treatment. And everybody knew that, which is what caused the public outcry, suspicion, questions of fairness, and yet more distrust in government officials and entities.

Which is why I’m surprised by City Council’s wholesale — and overwhelming — rejection of Mayor Benjamin’s simple proposal.

No, Columbia isn’t dealing with anything on the scale of the Lanier scandal, which was one of a series of contemporaneous scandals that laid the groundwork for the Legislature giving more power to governors. But people are asking whether city manager Teresa Wilson’s decision to go to a scene where state NAACP President Lonnie Randolph had been arrested smacked of special treatment. It’s a legitimate question to which city officials should have a serious response.

Ms. Wilson said she drove to the Five Points cleaners where the incident occurred because she was in the area when interim police chief Ruben Santiago called and informed her of the confrontation between Dr. Randolph and a Tripp’s Fine Cleaning employee and officers. The city manager, just seven months into her tenure, said going to the scene was part of her “customer service” obligations to residents. Even so, it’s unclear what her presence was supposed to bring to the situation.

While she spoke with the Tripp’s employee, Ms. Wilson said she didn’t talk to officers or Dr. Randolph, who already had been taken to a hospital.

The incident with Dr. Randolph was unfortunate. He was charged with the misdemeanor offenses of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and trespassing; he also was struck by an officer while being taken into custody. From what we know thus far, this seems to me a matter of Dr. Randolph’s diabetic condition getting the best of him. This case should be brought before a judge and dropped. For some reason, that didn’t happen when it should have; here’s hoping it doesn’t boil over into something that it doesn’t need to be.

But that incident led to Mr. Benjamin calling for a prohibition on city officials visiting crime scenes. Ms. Wilson took offense to the proposal, saying it suggests that an official’s “mere presence is undue influence.”

Perhaps Ms. Wilson had no intent of trying to affect this case. But the reality is that when the person who hires and fires the police chief shows up, that could affect how some officers conduct their jobs; that’s human nature. And while Ms. Wilson might not seek to influence officers, who’s to say a future council member or manager wouldn’t?

If nothing else, this is an opportunity to adopt a preventive policy.

Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman was dead on when he said: “I don’t see this policy as something that creates a problem. I think it would prevent one.” Then, he inexplicably voted against it.

The bottom line is that council members and administrators should avoid appearing on scenes so they don’t put police in awkward positions. While there might be extenuating circumstances — rare ones, mind you — when it makes sense for an elected official to be summoned to a crime scene, there is no public safety reason for council members to reserve the right to routinely show up at crime scenes.

It’s not their job — nor that of the city manager — to make arrests or detain suspects or collect evidence. They don’t direct traffic or interview victims or cordon off sensitive areas. And whether they admit it or not, their presence could inject political influence or pressure at a moment when law enforcement needs space to conduct police work and exercise professional judgment free of outside pressure.

Some council members questioned what constitutes a crime scene and just how close can they come to one. Council members Tameika Isaac Devine and Sam Davis said they have been near crime scenes to express concern and support for family and neighbors. For example, Ms. Devine cited the 2004 shooting deaths of two children from the T.S. Martin Park neighborhood near W.A. Perry Middle School.

As I said, I can imagine there being some rare exceptions, and Ms. Devine identifies one. But council members know exactly the kind of behavior the mayor is trying to prevent. The last thing we need is city officials appearing at crime scenes and interfering with police decisions directly or indirectly. We don’t need officials hovering over officers or expressing that they would appreciate any help that can be extended to friends or favored constituents or public figures.

Even if the council never approves a policy, one would hope that merely raising the issue would lead elected officials and administrators to exercise the good judgment to steer clear of crime scenes.

Of course, there’s no guarantee.

Ms. Wilson said Tuesday that if she faced the same circumstances again, she would handle the situation the same way.

So, stay tuned.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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