Editorial: Columbia must hire top-notch police chief with staying power

12/15/2013 12:00 AM

12/13/2013 6:11 PM

HIRING A capable, qualified police chief who can survive the rigors of Columbia city government for more than a year or two is the most significant task on the city’s plate right now.

People move to Columbia and agree to pay higher taxes in part for a higher level of police protection. But for years now, the Police Department has faced embarrassing scandals and a revolving door at the chief’s office. The next chief will be the eighth since 2007.

With communities from Five Points to North Columbia understandably demanding improved police protection amid rising gang violence and other safety concerns, it is imperative for city manager Teresa Wilson and the City Council to be on the same page. While nothing is guaranteed, Columbia must do all it can to avoid making another poor choice. The department and the city badly need a police chief who is a keeper.

Although the city is well into its search — the application period ended Tuesday, and the first round of interviews is set to begin Jan. 6 — some City Council members have questioned the way Ms. Wilson is leading the process. On Tuesday Mayor Steve Benjamin suggested the city should be using a national search firm.

We don’t know whether that would yield a better outcome than the national search being conducted by Ms. Wilson, who has assembled an impressive search committee to help narrow the pool of candidates: attorney Robert Bolchoz, who ran for state attorney general in 2010 and for City Council in 2012; Patty Patterson, former police chief and current public safety and welfare office director in Sumter; Brian Lamkin, a retired FBI agent who works as an investigator for the S.C. inspector general; Columbia attorney Jon Ozmint, a former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections; and Anson Shells, a retired Florence police chief who works as that city’s community relations commander.

Frankly, no matter what process is used, the decision is Ms. Wilson’s to make, and it will be heavily scrutinized. Opponents defeated a Dec. 3 referendum to make the mayor a full-time, empowered executive in large part by arguing that a trained professional manager is better suited to run city operations, including hiring and firing. Ms. Wilson’s performance thus will be seen through that prism.

It would behoove her to keep the council — and citizens — well informed and to ensure that this process is conducted in the light of day and according to the law, which requires the names of at least three finalists to be released to the public before anyone is hired.

This is no time for power plays. Columbians are worried about whether their city can keep them safe. In great part, the answer lies in city officials’ ability to seal the revolving door at the police chief’s office by hiring a top law officer who can get the job done over the long haul.

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