COLUMBIA, SC — A candidate for Columbia police chief on Wednesday leveled tough criticism toward city officials as he withdrew from the search.
The field of finalists was narrowed to two after Tony Fisher, the former director of the Spartanburg Department of Public Safety, sent a one-paragraph letter to city manager Teresa Wilson, removing his name from the field of candidates.
In an interview with The State newspaper, Fisher said the city lacked consistency within its leadership and questioned why interim Chief Ruben Santiago remained on the job after being the target of a federal and state investigation.
But Fisher stopped short of calling the city dysfunctional.
“In my close to 40 years in law enforcement, I’ve had the fortune to work in a cohesive, visionary environment where all seem to have the same goals – the politicians and the professionals,” Fisher said. Columbia “could have been a challenge for me.”
The selection process had been “laborious and indeterminate,” Fisher said.
He also indicated that the frequency with which City Council discusses merging the police and sheriff’s departments was a concern. Those conversations affect the entire organization, he said.
“There is no consistency in leadership and expectations,” Fisher said.
Fisher’s withdrawal leaves in play three of the five finalists named in February. However, Wilson has narrowed her choices to two, Leshia Utsey, the city’s spokeswoman, said. Utsey would not name the two.
Wilson is sticking with her timetable of naming a new chief by early next week, Utsey said.
Wilson is trying to end the turnover in the city’s most high-profile position. The next chief will be the eighth since 2007.
The selection process has been fraught with controversy.
Wilson and Mayor Steve Benjamin butted heads over how the search should be conducted. Then, Councilman Cameron Runyan criticized the chairman of Wilson’s five-person search committee. Until Wednesday afternoon, Runyan was pushing a proposal to turn over the department’s management to Sheriff Leon Lott. City Council strongly rejected that proposal in a 6-0 vote that supported the selection of a new chief..
The search committee chose five finalists. Fisher is the second to drop out.
He retired in August after 18 years running Spartanburg’s police and fire departments.
Fisher’s law enforcement experience also included 10 years as police chief of the Takoma Park, Md., Police Department and seven years at the Montgomery County Police Department in Rockville, Md.
On Wednesday, Fisher said he applied for the Columbia job because he relishes any opportunity to serve and make a difference. When the Columbia chief’s job had come open in the past, Fisher said he did not apply because he had a good working relationship with his supervisors in Spartanburg and was involved in progressive projects that he wanted to finish.
When Fisher was named a finalist in Columbia, some critics questioned how committed he would be since he already had retired.
However, several people involved in the interview process told The State newspaper that Fisher’s experience as a chief and understanding of the political climate equipped him to handle the job.
In his letter to Wilson, Fisher offered his appreciation to Columbians who served on the citizens search committee as well as to residents who attended public meetings in which the original five finalists answered questions.
In his conversation with The State, Fisher said he was impressed with the officers he met. He praised the police officers who work amid uncertainty about their leadership.
“My heart goes out to the people who are affected by it daily,” Fisher said. “They’ve done an exceptional job under a cloud for a long period of time. They seem to be unfazed by the abhorrent behavior in the executive office, and they should be applauded.
“I don’t know who would thrive under that daily deluge of information that is negative but not necessarily undeserved.”
Fisher did not name Santiago but was critical of what he described as questionable integrity within the executive office of the department. Santiago was accused by a former captain in a plot to frame an assistant city manager. While he was not prosecuted for that alleged plot, the investigators’ final report found he was not fully cooperative with state and federal agents.
Fisher said in most police departments an officer accused of that serious of an offense would have been suspended when his bosses first learned of it. Then, those managers should make a swift employment decision once the investigation was completed.
But in Columbia, “There seems to be total indifference to executive behavior,” he said.
When asked what it would take for someone to succeed as Columbia’s police chief, Fisher sighed. He said the next chief’s family must be committed, he must have energy and he must have thick skin.
“It would be tough,” he said. “They must serve with unvarnished candor about what is going on in the department.
“They must show integrity and respect at every turn. It should never be up for question.”
Two of these three candidates are finalists for the job of Columbia police chief. City manager Teresa would not say which of the two she’s considering.
William “Skip” Holbrook : 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 from Pfeiffer University in North Carolina.
Bryan Norwood : Norwood is a former chief of the Richmond (Va.,) Police Department. 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.
Gregory Reese : 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 and LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.