Columbia waiting on SLED investigation before moving ahead with police chief search

nophillips@thestate.comSeptember 8, 2013 

Columbia's administration building.


— The search for a new Columbia police chief is on hold.

The Columbia Police Department will continue to operate with an interim police chief as city officials wait for an investigation into the department’s leadership to wrap up.

While City Manager Teresa Wilson will hire the next chief, City Council members have indicated they would prefer to wait for two pending State Law Enforcement Division investigations to be completed before moving forward with a search. That consensus was reached Tuesday during a council work session.

“Until we get some clarity, it’s going to be hard to attract competent, first-class external candidates,” said Councilwoman Leona Plaugh. “And it’s not fair to our internal candidates. It’s not a good position, really, to be in.”

That means Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago could continue leading the 407-officer department for months. The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating a corruption allegation against Santiago that was made by one of his former captains. SLED also is investigating the former captain’s handling of a petty cash account.

Santiago has denied any wrongdoing, as has his accuser, David Navarro.

Thom Berry, a SLED spokesman, said late last week that both investigations were open and ongoing.

Meanwhile, Pam Benjamin, the city’s personnel director, is looking for a national firm to help with the search. No timeline has been put in place for when an outside firm would be hired, but she hopes to be ready to move as soon as SLED’s report is final, she said.

She said she and Wilson intend to make the search as public as possible. They will explain to the public the hiring process, the salary and even seek community involvement in selecting candidates, said Benjamin, who is not related to Mayor Steve Benjamin.

“The city manager is very, very adamant about that,” she said.

The police chief is one of the most high-profile positions in the city. It also is well paid; former chief Randy Scott earned $112,000 a year.

A chief is watched closely by City Council, whose members run for office on public safety platforms and pledges of constituency service. And neighborhood leaders expect a chief to promptly return their phone calls and respond to complaints.

The new chief also will be a crucial hire for a department that has suffered for years from a revolving door in the chief’s office. That can cause low morale and a lack of direction.

Scott cited stress when he resigned in April after taking a sudden, unexplained three-week leave of absence.

At the time, Wilson said she would take about two months to write a job description and advertise it. Two months came and went without either happening.

In early July, Wilson told The State newspaper she soon planned to announce the hiring process and hoped to select a chief by September. But that plan was sidelined a few days later when Navarro, who recently had been fired, made public accusations of corruption against Santiago.

That dispute between the two high-ranking officers created a distraction for city officials as well as others in the community.

Diane Wiley, president of the Belvedere Community Organization, said criminals tried to take advantage of the feud. She said it was like children doing what they pleased while parents fought each other as gangs fought for turf in her neighborhood, which includes more than 600 homes near Two Notch Road and Beltline Boulevard.

“In Belvedere, we heard gunshots, saw gangs,” Wiley said. “It was wild that week.”

Even so, Columbia police were responsive to neighbors’ calls and concerns, she said. After they reported gang graffiti to police, city crews came to clean it up.

For now, city officials have expressed confidence in Santiago’s ability to lead the department as interim chief. By most accounts, including those of several community leaders, Santiago is keeping the department focused.

“I’ve gotten no sense that the department isn’t moving ahead,” Plaugh said of his leadership.

At a recent City Council public safety committee meeting, John Durst, president of the S.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association, presented a new plan for policing Five Points. That plan, written under Santiago’s guidance with input from community leaders, shifted the department’s focus to gangs and illegal weapons in the entertainment and shopping district near USC instead of busting people for underage drinking and having fake IDs.

The report included glowing comments about Santiago’s work from Tim Smith, president of the Five Points Association. In the recent past, the association has not always been happy with police strategy, especially last year in the wake of multiple shootings and brawls.

Five Points bars were pleased with changes Santiago made to patrols in the area, Smith wrote.

“Board members tell me that this is the first time they can remember being excited about a chief of police,” he wrote. “Chief Santiago keeps us informed, returns calls promptly and seems to have a plan to make Five Points safe.”

Still, city officials said Santiago’s performance during the interim does not make him a shoo-in for chief. And they said they weren’t holding the position open in anticipation of SLED clearing his name.

“We certainly will give Ruben fair consideration, just as we will any other candidate,” Benjamin said.

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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