COLUMBIA, SC — If the applause and cheers of city residents attending a forum with the four candidates for police chief are any indication, the city is ready to move past political infighting and get back to the business of police work.
During Wednesday night’s forum, the finalists were asked how they would navigate the bureaucracy and whether they would be able to live up to their ethics and principles without losing the job. Each gave similar answers, saying they understood that the city manager would be the boss and they would not let politics influence things such as arrests and promotions.
The forum was the public’s only chance to see the candidates, and the City Council chambers had standing room only. Each candidate was given three minutes to answer seven questions during the hour-and-a-half-long forum. After the question-and-answer session, the candidates were whisked away and did not spend time mingling.
The questions had been submitted in advance by the public, and they covered topics such as combating gang violence, crime rates in each man’s jurisdiction, public relations and officer retention.
But it was the question about city government bureaucracy and ethics that drew a lively reaction from the crowd. As the moderator, Betty Parke, asked the question, a ripple of anticipation cut through the audience as they waited for the answers.
Under the council-manager form of government, city manager Teresa Wilson is the city’s chief administrator. The police chief’s immediate supervisor is assistant city manager Allison Baker, who reports to Wilson.
But in Columbia, the chief also is expected to answer to council members and to pick up the phone when neighborhood leaders call.
Gregory Reese, an Air Force colonel who has commanded military police units, was the first candidate who was asked the question. He said he did not want to be police chief if he could not work in an environment of trust.
“Yes, there’s a bureaucracy,” Reese said. “But there’s one person I’m responsible to and that’s the city manager. Yes, the city councilmen have a responsibility to be the elected voice of the people they serve in their districts and certainly they have dialogue with them. But I’m not beholden to them. You didn’t elect me to be police chief. You hired me to be police chief.”
Bryan Norwood, former chief of the Richmond, Va., Police Department said he would never sacrifice the integrity of his officers.
“At the end of the day, I will always be open to discussing issues that are facing the community but I’m very clear about who I work for.”
William Holbrook, chief of the Huntington, W. Va., Police Department said he worked under a strong-mayor form of government where the mayor serves as the city’s chief administrator. He is serving under his third mayor in seven years.
“You do have to strike a balance and navigate the political waters,” Holbrook said. “But the one thing that is crystal clear to me is they (the officers) have one boss and that is the police chief, and I have one boss and that’s the city manager.”
When it was time for Tony Fisher, the retired executive director of the Spartanburg Department of Public Safety, to answer, he said, “Ditto my colleagues.”
Fisher said integrity and credibility were key to getting along. He said he had been fortunate during his 27 years as a chief to work in a climate where political interference was off limits.
“I would hope that if I was selected chief, all of us would know our places,” Fisher said.
The candidates wrap up their three-day interviews Thursday with Baker and Wilson.
Wilson expects to hire one of the four by next week and have the new chief in office by mid-March.
The four candidates
Fisher retired in 2013 as director of Spartanburg’s public safety department, where he oversaw the police and fire departments. Also has served as chief of Takoma Park, Md., Police Department and as an officer in the Montgomery County Police Department in Rockville, Md. Has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland.
Holbrook is chief of the Huntington, W.Va., Police Department, which has 126 employees, including 111 officers, and a $12 million budget. He also has worked as an officer in the Charlotte Police Department. Graduated from the FBI Academy. Has a master’s degree from Pfeiffer University.
Norwood is a former chief of the Richmond Police Department in Virginia. The department has 760 officers and a $79 million budget. He also has served as a police chief in Bridgeport, Conn., and in New Haven, Conn. Also served as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent in New York City. Has a bachelor’s degree from Hampton University in Virginia.
Reese is chief of security forces for the Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, where he is responsible for 2,000 officers. He is a 23-year Air Force veteran with experience as chief of four military police departments. Has a master’s degree from the University of South Carolina.
Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.