COLUMBIA, SC — People who have been following the turmoil coming out of the Columbia Police Department the past few months hope the departure of Ruben Santiago, the embattled interim chief, is a step toward fixing what ails the agency.
“It should be a step toward much-needed healing,” said Ellen Fishburne Triplett, the former president of the Hyatt Park/Keenan Terrace neighborhood association. “But we’ve still got major surgery to be done.”
Santiago’s resignation comes just days before city manager Teresa Wilson is set to name a new chief. She has been searching since November and has narrowed her list of finalists to two people. She has not named them.
Wilson accepted Santiago’s resignation and relieved him of his duties as of 5 p.m. Thursday, according to a memo she sent to other city officials.
Wilson appointed Maj. Melron Kelly, who has been with the police department his entire career, as acting chief.
Efforts Thursday to reach Santiago, who has been serving as interim chief since April, were unsuccessfulThursday evening.
Santiago’s tenure had its share of controversy, most notably a state and federal investigation into allegations of corruption against him. But he also had widespread community support from people who appreciated his responsiveness to their concerns. They also praised the city’s drop in crime rates while he was chief.
Tim Smith, president of the Five Points Association, said Santiago oversaw a drop in crime in the district that had been plagued by gang activity. Santiago would call the association any time a problem erupted, even if it was 3 a.m., Smith said.
“When he took over as interim chief, we saw within a month or two an immediate reduction in crime,” Smith said. “That’s the bottom line for any police officer.”
Santiago’s resignation, however, surprised few.
“I can’t see anything else that would have been appropriate,” Triplett said. “I personally like the man. But the situation at the top spot is so garbled.”
Smith, who said he had had private conversations with Santiago, said the former interim chief needed to do what was best for him.
“It was a difficult spot to be in,” Smith said.
Last month, a special prosecutor cleared Santiago of any criminal charges after a former captain accused him of a “black ops” plot to plant drugs and a stolen gun in an assistant city manager’s car. But 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins accused Santiago and a former crime analyst of misleading investigators about copies of a secretly recorded phone conversation.
Santiago had applied to become the permanent chief but already had been eliminated from consideration. After Wilkins’ revelation in late February, it was clear to many that Santiago’s days at the department were numbered.
Few City Council members would talk about the scandal surrounding Santiago.
Councilman Sam Davis commended Santiago for getting off to a good start when he was asked to lead the department after the abrupt resignation of former chief Randy Scott.
“The crime rate under his tutelage was steadily going down,” Davis said.
Asked about the effects of the corruption investigation, Davis said, "The investigation spoke for itself."
Davis said it did not bother him that the city manager left Santiago in the interim post while he was under the cloud of the months-long SLED and FBI investigation.
"I had no problem with allowing her to go through her due diligence on that," Davis said of Wilson’s internal inquiry about Santiago.
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh declined to comment, saying Santiago’s departure is a personnel matter.
Councilman Cameron Runyan said in a statement, "Acting chief Kelly is an outstanding officer, and I have every confidence in him."
Mayor Steve Benjamin emailed: “I want to thank Ruben Santiago for his service to the city and the people of Columbia and we wish him well in his future endeavors. I am certain Interim Chief Kelly will do an outstanding job. He has my full confidence and support and I am certain he will make us proud.”
Efforts to reach the three other members of council Thursday evening were unsuccessful.
Kelly’s tenure as acting chief should be short. Wilson has said she has narrowed her list of chief candidates to two, and many expect her to name her pick next week.
But those who know Kelly say he is capable of holding down the fort until Wilson’s new chief arrives.
Kelly received his introduction to the Columbia Police Department when he signed up for an Explorer’s program when he was in high school. Born and raised in north Columbia, Kelly knew then he wanted to be an officer and joined the ranks as soon as he was able.
Kelly has worked as a patrolman and in narcotics. He served more than two years as commander of the department’s North Region, which includes some of the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods, such as The Colony apartments.
He was promoted to major late last year and was put in charge of the uniform operations division. Officers in that division do the bulk of the boots-on-the-ground police work in the city.
Residents who worked with Kelly when he led the North Region sing his praises. Many have hoped that he would one day lead the department.
Triplett said Kelly was the most proactive region commander she had ever dealt with. He created programs for area youth, worked with the managers of the region’s many low-income and public housing complexes and showed up at community events, often with his family in tow.
“It seemed the morale of his men and women was quite good,” Triplett said. “We didn’t have to go begging for information from him. It was there for us.
“I can’t find a single bad thing to say about him except that he left us,” she said, referring to Kelly’s promotion. “I hope that one day he would be picked to become the permanent chief.”
Timing - Ruben Santiago’s resignation comes days before city manager Teresa Wilson is to name a new chief. He was not a finalist.
Truthfulness - A solicitor said Santiago wasn’t completely truthful during a months-long corruption probe that ended two weeks ago.
Temporary - Longtime department employee Melron Kelly becomes acting chief, the department’s eighth leader since 2007.
Recent history of Columbia police chiefs
The department has had eight chiefs and interim chiefs since 2007.
Dean Crisp, chief for three years, retired in September 2007 amid criticism that he allowed family and friends at crime scenes.
Harold Reaves, an interim chief, left in November 2007 to attend to unspecified family matters. He had come under fire for rehiring an officer Crisp had fired and for reversing discipline Crisp had imposed on a dozen officers accused of cheating on a recertification test.
Norman Caldwell, an interim chief, held the spot until May 2008.
Tandy Carter was fired as chief in May 2010 for refusing to turn over to state police an investigation into a car wreck involving then-Mayor-Elect Steve Benjamin.
Carl Burke, an interim chief, retired a few weeks earlier than expected in October 2010 after it was discovered he had not been certified to carry a weapon since 2007.
Randy Scott accepted an interim position in October 2010 and then was hired as chief in January 2011. After taking an unexplained leave of absence in the spring of 2013, he returned and cited post-traumatic stress disorder as his reason for resigning in April.
Ruben Santiago, a deputy chief under Scott, served as interim chief since April 2013. He resigned Thursday, two weeks after a prosecutor said no charges would be filed against him after a months-long public corruption investigation but that Santiago had not been completely truthful with investigators.
Melron Kelly, who grew up in north Columbia and has worked with the department his entire career, has been named acting chief. Kelly has served in the investigation division, the gangs-narcotics unit and as North Region commander. Until Thursday, he oversaw the Operations Division as a major.
Staff writer Clif LeBlanc contributed. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.