Skip Holbrook, with a resolute grin, describes his first eight months on the job as Columbia’s ninth police chief in seven years as being like juggling bowling balls.
“I’ve probably been able to shed a bowling ball or two,” Holbrook joked recently as his first calendar year on the job drew to a close. “But the ones I’m still juggling are pretty heavy.”
Among the bowling balls he’s been able to lay down (read accomplishments):
• Improving code enforcement issues now that City Council has consolidated most code enforcement under the police department.
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• Refining a Five Points transportation service that enlists USC shuttles and some city cab companies to get partiers home safely from the entertainment district.
• Providing take-home police cars to most officers who live within the city limits, a benefit many officers had been requesting.
• Starting the use of body-worn cameras in the city’s entertainment districts and having a strong police presence in those popular destinations. That, Holbrook said, has contributed to a sense of improved safety in those districts.
But Holbrook has begun laying out his proposals for 2015 and beyond as he devises the five-year strategic plan he promised March 21 when he was introduced as the leader who would upgrade a scandalized police department with a long history of turmoil at the top, discord in the ranks and sometimes shoddy police work.
Holbrook kicked his plans into higher gear in December.
First, he called a news conference to roll out a round of initiatives intended to strengthen public trust and police accountability.
Within a week, he and city manager Teresa Wilson announced a $993,000 package of pay raises and salary incentives that singled out the police department among all city agencies. The department’s troubles in recruiting and keeping officers led to an unprecedented 45 vacancies, a number equivalent to an entire police region, the city said at the time.
Holbrook and Wilson say they can pay for the package of upgrades within this year’s police department budget. City Council will have to decide how to pay for sustaining the changes starting July 1, the beginning of the 2015-16 fiscal year.
If implemented, the slate of changes Holbrook is promising would signal major police reforms. In an interview with The State, Holbrook said, “Our organization requires considerable transformation.”
In the interview, the chief laid out a few more details than he announced last month when he proposed body-worn cameras for all officers, more sensitivity and conflict-resolution training along with citizen input on hearing complaints against officers.
The new details the former Huntington, West Va., chief discussed include:
• Starting an outside-agency, peer-review system for evaluating candidates for promotions. Called an Assessment Center, officers from a revolving list of police agencies will rate Columbia candidates. Holbrook will promote from the peer-review list of recommended candidates.
Having objective standards for promotion is aimed at dealing with morale problems on the Columbia force. “People felt extremely disenfranchised because of past promotion practices,” Holbrook said.
• Naming his command staff (majors and captains) in January. Their promotions will signal “our future leadership.” The chief said he has had 15 promotions on hold because he had not wanted to create more vacancies.
A second round of promotions for rank-and-file officers is scheduled to start in early spring.
The peer-review process will be modeled on the one used by the Savannah, Ga., police department, Holbrook said.
• Possible redrawing the lines of the department’s five police regions based on calls for service and later adding a sixth region for entertainment districts that will include the Bull Street development.
• Seeking a staff attorney for the police department who would work out of the city attorney’s office.
• Laying out the department’s space needs in late January with hopes to be able to consolidate the 16 locations spread around town into a new building along Busby Street in North Columbia and in an already rented facility on Bluff Road in the southern part of the city.
Filling vacancies overrides nearly every initiative, Holbrook said.
He needs more officers to improve the community policing demands from residents who want to get to know the officers that patrol their neighborhoods. The entertainment districts need more officers. Training officers and the crime scene unit need more personnel.
Spending on overtime needs to become an option rather than a requirement to fill shifts.
He hopes to fill half of the 45 vacancies by the end of 2015 and the other half by December 2016, Holbrook said.
The 50-year-old chief noted that he arrived in the spring not knowing anyone in the police department. “I was completely starting from scratch,” he said. “Relationships are everything, everything.”
Considering that he is getting to know his police force while also learning Columbia and its political climate, “I think I’m on schedule (of the changes he wants to make).” Then he added, “I would have liked some things to come to fruition sooner.”
His voice trailed off and Holbrook changed the subject to other accomplishments.