April 11, 2014

New Columbia police chief pledges to involve officers, public in setting priorities

The oath has been sworn, stars pinned on the collar and now it’s time for Columbia’s new police chief , Skip Holbrook, to get to work.

The oath has been given to the Columbia Police Department’s new chief.

Three stars have been pinned on his collar.

Now, it’s time for Chief Skip Holbrook to get to work on his pledge to make the department a world-class police agency.

Holbrook thanked city leaders for offering him the “career opportunity of a lifetime” as he was sworn in by Chief City Judge Dana Turner. His wife, Michelle Holbrook, pinned three stars on his collar, the rank insignia worn by the police department’s chief.

“My personal and professional family now has grown to include the Columbia, S.C. Police Department,” Holbrook said. “We are excited as a family to be a part of the fabric of this wonderful community.”

He already has started drafting a 90-day plan of action and a more lengthy strategic plan to give the department direction. Officers of all ranks will be involved in developing the plan, he said.

“We will work together as a staff, and we will determine the direction the police department needs to head to reach the highest standards,” Holbrook said.

The ceremony was filled with decorum, prayer and some good humor, especially when a middle school band member dropped a drum and a cymbal just as Holbrook was taking his oath of office. Holbrook smiled and stifled a laugh as he pledged to uphold the Constitution.

City Hall’s council chambers were packed with city police officers, officers from other local agencies, Columbia community leaders and friends of Holbrook from West Virginia and North Carolina, the other states where he has lived and worked. The Rev. Reginald Hill, a pastor from a Huntington, W.Va., church who befriended Holbrook during his tenure as chief in that city, led the opening prayer.

In Huntington, Holbrook earned a stellar reputation as a chief who reached out to the community and was the driving force to clean up a neighborhood that was plagued with drugs and prostitution.

He also took over a department that was, by most accounts, suffering from poor morale. He managed to earn the respect of his staff and found ways to boost the department’s budget so he could hire more officers.

In Columbia, Holbrook will be in charge of a department nearly four times bigger than the one he left. The Columbia Police Department has more than 460 officers and staff and an annual budget of more than $32 million.

He takes over a department that has been embarrassed by a recent state and federal investigation into corruption allegations against a former interim chief and a former captain. While no one was charged with a crime, investigators and a special prosecutor appointed to the case said former interim chief Ruben Santiago had not been forthcoming during the investigation.

The 405-page report released after the investigation also revealed a department in which top commanders were involved in affairs, gossip, heavy drinking and spying on other officers.

The search for a new chief also was wrought with controversy as city manager Teresa Wilson, who had responsibility for the hire, butted heads with Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilman Cameron Runyan over the search process.

Now, though, the city and its department have a clean start.

After the ceremony, Holbrook and his command staff gathered for a picture, cracking jokes and smiling. Afterward, the command staff gave a big cheer and a huge round of applause for their new boss.

Wilson already has changed the chain of command at City Hall.

Holbrook will report to her rather than to an assistant city manager, which has been the case for the past several chiefs.

Wilson said she made the change after hearing feedback from other law enforcement professionals that the chief needed to report directly to her.

“We want to make sure the chief is going to be successful once he is in place,” Wilson said.

Wilson said she plans to have an open line of communication with Holbrook. She also will be involved in the strategic planning for the department, but said she will let Holbrook make decisions without her interference.

“I’ve never been a micromanager of my staff,” Wilson said. “That’s not my style.”

After the ceremony, Holbrook told The State newspaper that he planned to involve officers from all ranks and people in the community as he develops his strategic plan. The plan will include benchmarks for him.

“I expect to be held accountable for that,” he said.

Holbrook’s police department email address was activated this week, and he had 86 messages waiting. Most were invitations to meet with neighborhood and business groups, and he said he plans to accept those, he said.

Next week, Holbrook will begin visiting the rank-and-file officers throughout the department’s five regions. He said he will talk to them about expectations and his plans.

Holbrook said officers won’t see wholesale changes. He will take time to understand the department, its people and its responsibilities.

He said he will make changes within his command staff, but those won’t involve personnel switches as much as they will be a realignment of responsibility. The department’s assistant chief position is vacant. Holbrook said he had not made up his mind on who will fill that role.

“We’re really going to take inventory of the state of affairs,” Holbrook said.

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