COLUMBIA, SC — The Columbia Police Department is embroiled in another internal controversy – this time involving two officers resisting orders from the chief to march with fellow officers in the S.C. Gay Pride Parade last week.
The circumstances are likely to fuel complaints of meddling by City Hall in internal police matters.
The veteran officers refused an order from interim chief Ruben Santiago that they join eight other officers in representing the department in the downtown parade. The lieutenant and sergeant cited religious beliefs in saying they did not want to participate.
But Saturday, on the morning of the parade, Santiago and his bosses – city manager Teresa Wilson and senior assistant city manager Allison Baker – reached an agreement that participation was voluntary, not a directive, because enough officers had agreed to march in the event.
“In the end it was decided to make it voluntary, and I couldn’t hold them responsible for any disciplinary action,” Santiago said Thursday during a phone conference interview that included Wilson, Baker and personnel director Pam Benjamin, who is not related to Mayor Steve Benjamin.
Wilson characterized the reversal of Santiago’s directive as a practical solution reached in concert with him because the department was going to be adequately represented by enough volunteers. The department’s participation was important to signal the city’s commitment to inclusiveness, Wilson said.
“I encouraged that (using volunteers only),” Wilson said. “Practically speaking, why not make it voluntary?”
Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine said in a separate interview that she had informed Wilson the morning of the parade that one of the officers had hired an attorney and planned to sue the city.
Devine said she learned that from one of the resistant officers, who later volunteered to participate in the parade. She said she has known that officer for years and happened to see him at another downtown event on Saturday morning. Devine said she encouraged him to march in the parade.
The State newspaper is not naming the officers because they are not being disciplined and because a lawsuit, according to Wilson, has not been filed.
The handling of the situation prompted complaints to the mayor and to the media.
A police department employee wrote to Steve Benjamin on Tuesday, alleging that Wilson and Devine overruled Santiago and told the two officers they did not have to participate.
The writer said the oath officers take is to serve and protect everyone, not just people they accept. Officers cannot pick and choose assignments, the writer said.
The mayor said that Thursday officers must serve all of Columbia’s residents and they “must follow orders from the chief.”
Separately, an anonymous email circulated Thursday to reporters blamed Wilson for reversing Santiago’s decision.
Wilson and Devine said they did not order Santiago to change his directive, which the interim chief said he resorted to after only two officers on the 400-plus force responded to his initial request for volunteers.
Devine said she called Wilson on Saturday “to give her a heads-up” about a possible lawsuit – not to influence her to override Santiago.
“I trusted their decision on that,” Devine said of Santiago’s order. “But I also shared with her all the problems in the police department (and) was this reason enough to have another controversy.”
The issue of police department independence from City Hall came up Tuesday during what would have been a closed-door City Council discussion. In a rare move, council voted to open the discussion about reorganizing the leadership of the department to the public.
Benjamin and Councilman Cameron Runyan took issue with the plan because Baker said he and Wilson would have veto authority over personnel promotion and disciplinary decision made in the department.
Runyan said the plan would continue a pattern of “micromanaging.” Benjamin said the problem is systemic. “The chief has not been authorized to do his job.”
Wilson and Baker defended the plan as one devised by Santiago with input from retired SLED chief Robert Stewart.
On Thursday, in reference to the gay pride parade, Wilson said she and Baker had been talking with Santiago about the situation for days leading up to the event. They were aware of his directive.
But once Wilson learned Saturday morning that enough volunteers had stepped forward, “I felt it was fine to make it voluntary. I wanted verification that we had ... a good representative showing. I didn’t have any need to direct the chief (to change his mind).”
Asked if he was in full agreement with Wilson’s suggestion, Santiago said, “Ms. Wilson laid out the whole scenario, and ultimately I followed that.”
The department has been embroiled in controversy for months.
In the spring, the department was upended with the sudden and unusual resignation of popular chief Randy Scott, who disappeared in early April only to resurface weeks later and announce he was leaving because of job stress.
In early July, now-fired Capt. Dave Navarro accused Santiago of misconduct because, according to Navarro, Santiago and Scott plotted to get Baker fired by planting a stolen gun and cocaine in Baker’s vehicle. The State Law Enforcement Division has been investigating since July.
Days later, Wilson was criticized by the mayor and others for showing up at the arrest of state NAACP president Lonnie Randolph, who was cited for causing a disturbance at a Five Points dry-cleaning business. Wilson’s detractors said she was showing favoritism for a well-known resident. She denied those claims.
As for the parade, Baker on Thursday said he knows of no grounds for an exemption from duties for religious reasons. “There is no policy to give them foundation to claim (a religious exemption),” he said.
The officers did not specify how marching in the parade violated their religious beliefs, according to Baker, Santiago and Wilson.
Until participation became voluntary, the interim chief said his view was that the officers had violated a direct order. Santiago said it is well established in the law and court cases that officers do not have discretion to pick their assignments.
He said his department is going to launch an internal education campaign so that officers will “be more diligent when we put out directives ... or for voluntary actions.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.