Interim Columbia police chief may not be qualified to serve as chief under city’s latest job description

nophillips@thestate.comNovember 24, 2013 

Columbia's Interim Police Chief Ruben Santiago

Questions are arising over whether Interim Chief Ruben Santiago is qualified to serve as Columbia’s next police chief, based on the job description posted by the city.

The description calls for eight years of experience in a command position as a captain or higher. It also says a masters degree is strongly preferred.

However, Santiago told The State newspaper he has six years of experience as a captain or higher and is 10 months away from completing online coursework to earn a master’s degree.

Another complication for Santiago, who has been serving as interim chief since April, is an ongoing corruption investigation. That investigation began in July after a former captain accused Santiago of asking him to steal a gun and drugs from a crime scene. Santiago has denied any wrongdoing.

Still, Santiago plans to apply for the job.

“I’m hoping the city will consider me a viable candidate for the job,” he said.

The timing on the search for a chief has led to speculation that Santiago has fallen out of favor with his bosses at City Hall just as the city decides whether it wants to change its form of government. If voters approve the strong mayor referendum Dec. 3, there would be a shake up at City Hall as Mayor Steve Benjamin assumes responsibility for hiring and firing officials.

For months, City Manager Teresa Wilson said she would wait to search for a full-time chief until the investigation was complete. But she announced the job posting Nov. 12.

A week before the job posting, Santiago had stood with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott during a news conference, where the sheriff criticized the city’s management of the police department when announcing his department’s weekend operation in Five Points.

The sheriff told the media that he had not informed Santiago because the chief would have had to get permission from too many people and word of the operation would have leaked.

After the news conference, Wilson said the chief had authority to make his own decisions, but Mayor Steve Benjamin used the news conference as an opportunity to show why a strong mayor form of government is needed.

In late September, Santiago was forced to reverse an order that officers participate in the S.C. Gay Pride Parade. Two officers had refused and threatened to sue the city over their participation. But City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine and Wilson intervened, and the mandatory participation turned into voluntary participation.

That led to complaints that City Hall continues to meddle in internal police matters.

Hiring a chief will be one of the most important decisions in Wilsons’s tenure as city manager as she tries to bring stability to a department that has had more than its share of controversy. The next chief will become the eighth person since 2007 to run the department of 460 employees, including 385 officers.

Qualified applicants have until Dec. 11 to apply for the job, which will pay $89,246 to $115,869 annually, according to the job posting on the city’s website. The city has released a timeline for its hiring process with the goal of having a new chief in place by early March.

The strong mayor referendum also brings complications to the search.

If the referendum passes, a new police chief would have a new boss early in his tenure. Or, the mayor could fire him and pick the person he wants to be chief.

For her part, Wilson said she did not decide to forge ahead with the chief’s search to undercut Santiago or to make her mark on local government before the strong mayor referendum.

“I don’t get into the gamesmanship or political rhetoric,” Wilson said. “I’m honestly trying to do my job. If it was up to me, I would have engaged in this search much sooner than now.”

City Council had hoped the investigation would be cleared up, but there appears to be no end in sight, she said. It’s not fair for the police department to keep operating without clear direction or leadership.

“When we didn’t get any additional clarity, I decided to move forward,” Wilson said.

Wilson and the city’s human resources director Pamela Benjamin said the job description was written after consulting with other law enforcement agencies and professional associations about what would be best for a city Columbia’s size.

“As much as I say it, people are not going to believe it when I say it wasn’t written to weed anybody out. It was not our intention to disqualify him or box him out in the job qualifications,” said Benjamin, who is not related to the mayor.

The last time the city advertised for a police chief was in January, when then-Chief Randy Scott retired to take advantage of changes in the state retirement system. That posting advertised for a chief with 10 years of experience, and Scott was rehired. The city also sought candidates with 10 years of experience when it searched for a chief in 2011, the first time Scott was hired, and in 2008, when Tandy Carter became chief.

Once the application deadline closes, Benjamin and her staff will sort through the applications and determined who is qualified. That list of qualified applicants will be given to Wilson.

Benjamin said she will look at the totality of applicants’ experience. It’s possible that a candidate could be short in one area, but the overall experience would compensate.

“To say the eight years is an absolute – it is not that simple,” Benjamin said.

Meanwhile, people in the community are voicing support for Santiago.

Tim Smith, president of the Five Points Association, said his group has endorsed Santiago.

“Our whole organization would love to see Chief Santiago hired and made permanent chief as soon as possible,” Smith said Wednesday during a public crime forum.

Tuesday night, Tommy Burkett, president of the North Columbia Business Association and a former candidate for City Council, spoke in favor of Santiago at the conclusion of a community crime forum in Eau Claire. Burkett said he was speaking for himself as he praised Santiago of being respectful of the community.

“I’m understanding he’s not qualified,” Burkett said. “But what the hell is he not qualified for?”

Santiago came to the city police department in late December 2010 as a deputy chief on Scott’s command staff. Scott and Santiago had worked together for years at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

Before joining the Columbia Police Department, Santiago spent a year in Afghanistan where he worked as a project manager for a joint U.S. State Department/Defense Department program to train Afghan police officers. He said he managed more than 300 American police officers who assigned to training units.

“It was just like a police academy,” he said.

At Richland County, Santiago was promoted to captain in 2008 and worked at that rank until he accepted the job in Afghanistan.

Santiago has served two stints as interim chief of the Columbia Police Department. His first was for 15 days in January when Scott retired and then was rehired. He was named interim chief again in April when Scott resigned, citing post-traumatic stress disorder.

Santiago’s tenure has come with controversy.

Earlier this month, Santiago set off a firestorm on social media after he told a critical commenter on his department’s page, “We will work on finding you.” Santiago later said he did not mean his comments as a threat, and the commenter said he accepted a personal apology from the interim chief. But that did not stop the story from being picked up by bloggers, including some overseas.

The biggest obstacle may be the pending corruption investigation. Santiago has maintained his innocence.

The former captain who leveled the allegations, David Navarro, was fired in July for insubordination. Navarro also is under investigation over his handling of money belonging to the Columbia Police Foundation and for shredding documents without authorization.

The investigation has damaged Santiago’s credibility. At Tuesday’s forum in Eau Claire, a man used the corruption allegations as an example as to why the police department can’t curb violent crime.

“You guys can’t even clean up your own corruption,” said the man, who did not give his name. “You’re a nice person, Santiago, but I think you’re in a lot of trouble.”

Santiago said he has tried to avoid getting discouraged by the investigation or the job posting that may leave him out of running to become chief.

“I’ve heard various theories and conspiracies and I think it’s dangerous to entertain those,” he said. “I’m going to focus on what I can and keep putting my best foot forward. If I’m not able to compete or I’m not selected, I still want what is best for the city.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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