February 24, 2014

Editorial: Columbia’s police chief search is a mess

Columbia, SC

Columbia, SC

POOR communication and a power struggle between Columbia’s top administrator and some on the City Council have made a mess of the search for a new police chief.

It’s the kind of turmoil that can easily rear its head in Columbia’s inefficient, anti-accountability government in which the city manager has seven elected bosses. By law, City Manager Teresa Wilson is responsible for hiring and supervising the chief of police. But let’s not kid ourselves. One reason the police chief’s job has been in constant flux — if Ms. Wilson hires a top cop this week, he will be the eighth person to lead the department since 2007 — is City Council members’ penchant for usurping the city manager’s authority and meddling in police operations.

But while council members should stay away from the hiring and supervision of the chief, they are Ms. Wilson’s bosses, and she should have been working closely with them to learn their concerns, clearly communicate her intentions and develop a shared understanding about the hire. It is apparent that has not been happening. That is a problem, considering the dire need for Columbia to get a top law officer who can withstand the political structure of the city’s government, connect with the community, combat crime and overcome the revolving-door syndrome at the chief’s office.

Given Columbia’s rocky history for retaining police chiefs, it was imperative for city leaders to present a welcoming, united front to allay any fears candidates might have. As things stand, the next chief will take over when the under belly of council-manager is fully exposed. Throughout the search, we’ve seen an unhealthy tug of war between Ms. Wilson and some members of the council on issues such as the timing of the search, the manner of the search and the formation and make up of a search committee.

Even after Ms. Wilson established a search panel and started taking applications, some members insisted the city should use a national search firm instead. Ms. Wilson pushed back and insisted that using a panel of law and law enforcement professionals to cull through candidates from across the nation would do the job.

As Ms. Wilson closes in on a selection, council members Cameron Runyan, Brian DeQuincey Newman and Sam Davis are questioning the process, with Mr. Runyan accusing search committee chairman Robert Bolchoz of being predisposed against internal candidates and not being forthcoming about that. Mr. Runyan produced an email in which Mr. Bolchoz wrote, “The chief’s position should not be open to any current or former member of the Columbia Police Department.” Mr. Bolchoz has dismissed the criticism.

We don’t know what to make of this mess, and our guess is that candidates for the job don’t quite know how to take it either. But anyone hired under these conditions starts with an unfair cloud over his head, which will make an already-difficult job even tougher. And it’s unclear whether a new chief would enter the job with the universal support he deserves from city leadership, which is critical for a newcomer to the community.

Even if Ms. Wilson is able to hire Mr. Right from among the four remaining candidates — one dropped out — the environment among city leaders creates absolutely the wrong condition under which to welcome a new police chief expected to last for the long haul.

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