Bolton: It’s an odd time to discuss placing Columbia’s Police Department under the sheriff

Associate EditorFebruary 1, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— IF TIMING is everything, then how good or purposeful is Columbia City Council’s timing when it comes to plans to hold key discussions about the future of the Police Department in the midst of the search for a new chief who would oversee that future?

With Columbia having struggled to keep a police chief in place over the past several years, city manager Teresa Wilson is taking extra care to ensure the next top law officer — who will be the eighth person to lead the department since 2007 — is one who can stand the test of time. Ms. Wilson is being aided by a five-member search committee, heavy in law-enforcement experience, that has winnowed the pool of 50 applicants to around a dozen candidates. Finalists are expected to be invited for interviews the middle of this month, and a chief could be chosen in March.

But will City Council’s focus on public safety — the Police Department in particular — impede the search for a new chief?

Budget chairman Cameron Runyan and others on the council want to spend more money, including increasing salaries, in support of police officers, firefighters and 911 dispatchers. Noting that council members declared public safety a top issue when running for office, Mr. Runyan is challenging his colleagues to increase public safety spending.

There’s nothing wrong with the council wanting to boost salaries and extend other support for those who keep citizens safe — provided taxpayers can afford it. I’m sure a new chief would welcome that. But all increased spending should be detailed and justified. Why is it needed? It’s unacceptable to increase spending for any service, even critical public safety departments, without outlining the purpose.

Moreover, the timing of some elements of this public safety push is most curious. In particular, Mr. Runyan said he wants the city manager and the finance department to calculate the cost of turning the Police Department over to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. You’d think that the council would hold off on discussing such a dramatic change until after a new chief is hired. And maybe that will happen. Although the finance committee’s next meeting is on Feb. 12, there are plenty of other budget matters to explore.

I suspect that anyone considering the police chief’s position is expecting it to be the top job. No doubt, they’re anticipating conducting an assessment of the department’s needs based on their management style and philosophy of law enforcement and public safety. I’m sure they’d like more police officers and other support but that they’d like some say in how that all comes together.

Frankly, if council members intend to seriously consider placing the police department under Sheriff Lott, they should have started that discussion months ago and insisted that Ms. Wilson delay the search for a new a chief pending the outcome of that hot-button discussion — which has not only citywide but countywide implications. Once that was taken care of, any chief candidates would know exactly what they’d be signing up for.

Some city officials don’t think the specter of turning the Police Department over to the sheriff will affect the search for a new chief. I’m not so sure. The city’s inability to hold onto a police chief for any meaningful amount of time is reason alone for candidates to be at least concerned. Wouldn’t the possibility that the job might become a subordinate one heighten that concern?

Let’s be real: The police chief won’t have the same authority if the department is placed under the sheriff.

That’s not to say that placing the Police Department under the sheriff is a bad idea. It’s not. Our editorial board has said this is an intriguing idea that should be explored. We even encouraged the city to test the arrangement out by giving the sheriff control for a year.

There’s good reason to make the change: It would be more efficient and accountable and would promote city-county consolidation. Right now, the police chief has to answer to eight bosses. Although the city manager is by law the one who supervises the chief, over the years the council at times has played a large — and unlawful and problematic — role in how that person does his job.

City Council considered contracting with Sheriff Lott a couple years ago, only to reject the idea after some residents objected.

Recently, the sheriff said that private and business interests have suggested he reconsider consolidating departments but that he’s only interested if it is done the right way “and the correct way is I’d have to be in charge. That’s the only way to fix it. I’m not asking for it, but I’m open to it.”

Here’s a question Ms. Wilson could ask candidates: “I know you’re interviewing to be the city’s top cop, but are you open to serving under the sheriff?” I’d be interested in the answers she gets.

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

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