March 19, 2014

Bolton: Ill-timed effort hurt future talks of merger between Columbia Police, Richland County Sheriff’s Department

COLUMBIA City Councilman Cameron Runyan’s ill-timed effort last week to place Columbia’s Police Department under Sheriff Leon Lott might have killed any chance of this worthwhile idea getting serious discussion again in the foreseeable future.

COLUMBIA City Councilman Cameron Runyan’s ill-timed effort last week to place Columbia’s Police Department under Sheriff Leon Lott might have killed any chance of this worthwhile idea getting serious discussion again in the foreseeable future.

While it would take some political courage and in-depth community discussion, merging the two departments is an intriguing idea that deserves serious consideration. Not only would it even out the quality of coverage across the county and reduce citizen confusion over jurisdictional lines, but it would bring a higher level of accountability, which is lacking throughout city government. With the elected sheriff in control of city police, voters would know whom to hold accountable when it comes to law enforcement.

I’ve long supported the consolidation of city and county services to reduce duplication, improve cost-effectiveness and cut down on confusion. The city and county boast several joint efforts, most notably the countywide fire service. If the law enforcement agencies could be merged, it likely would induce more city-county consolidation.

Of course, the cleanest, most effective way to unify the police and sheriff’s departments would be to consolidate the two governments and have just one law enforcement agency. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, for political and legal reasons.

Last week, Mr. Runyan proposed an intermediate step in the form of a three-year contract that would allow Sheriff Lott to oversee the police department as a trial run. But while his intention might have been noble, his pitch was made at the wrong time and poorly executed.

Two days after his inexplicable decision to call a press conference announcing he would push for a vote on placing city police under Sheriff Lott’s charge, the effort died for lack of support. At a special called meeting, Mr. Runyan backed away from the proposal and apologized for how he approached the matter and some comments he had made.

But actions bring consequences, and I believe Mr. Runyan’s attempt to force this change did long-term damage to the idea.

This idea has been around for a number of years now. The last time it was considered, in 2010, it got a hostile public reaction, and support on City Council faltered. Even if there was an outside chance last week of council approval, the way it was thrust into the public domain would have drawn cries of a sneak attack on the police department and a rushed effort to avoid genuine scrutiny.

As it was, some reasonably concluded that Mr. Runyan, who has been critical of the process used to find the city’s new police chief, was simply engaged in a power play to delay or even stop City Manager Teresa Wilson’s effort to choose a new chief of police, which was nearing an end.

Why pitch such a drastic change at such at inopportune time? Police chief candidates hadn’t interviewed to be a subordinate to the sheriff; they thought they were seeking the position to be Columbia’s top cop.

If Mr. Runyan wanted a joint law enforcement arrangement to have a real chance to succeed, he should have proposed this a year ago, when then-Chief Randy Scott resigned. The police chief’s chair was vacant and no active search was underway. The council could have directed Ms. Wilson to forgo any search until it decided the issue.

To be fair, Mr. Runyan said he had proposed opening talks with Sheriff Lott about two months ago in the city budget and finance committee, but “I couldn’t get it out of committee.”

He said he brought the matter up again after reading the 400-plus page State Law Enforcement Division’s finding in a corruption investigation of police leadership.

But while the report put the police department in a bad light, in many people’s minds it didn’t bolster the argument to place the city’s officers under Sheriff Lott. Frankly, many woes the department has encountered over the past year or so has been due to leaders who cut their teeth under the sheriff: Randy Scott, Ruben Santiago and Dave Navarro.

Although former Interim Chief Santiago wasn’t prosecuted over allegations that he was plotting to frame an assistant city manager, a solicitor’s assertion that he wasn’t fully cooperative was disturbing and raised the question of whether he could be trusted to lead the police department even temporarily.

In addition, the already-troubled department came out of the investigation looking even worse in the wake of profanity-laden audio recordings of Mr. Santiago and former police Capt. David Navarro, who accused Mr. Santiago of the “black ops” plot, and a subordinate employee. The recordings capture Mr. Santiago and Mr. Navarro in an in-depth conversation in the presence of Bridget Caffery, a subordinate, about former chief Randy Scott’s personal problems and strategies for Mr. Scott, Mr. Santiago and Mr. Navarro to rise through the ranks of city administration.

The full investigative file from the case paints the picture of an unacceptable culture of distrust, suspicion and rumors within the department.

Like it or not, this reflected on the Sheriff’s Department and made it a bad time to pitch a takeover of the city’s police department.

Yes, Sheriff Lott is a trusted, proven, dependable law officer known to be a strong leader. And he noted that under his leadership, Mr. Scott, Mr. Santiago and Mr. Navarro were not problematic.

So, what happened? Did all that they had learned under Mr. Lott flee them, or were they simply displaying more openly who they always were at sheriff’s department?

Despite it all, I still believe that at some point, Columbia and Richland County should consider merging law enforcement. But the decision must not be based solely on the personality of the sitting sheriff, which is the motivating factor for many people. Mr. Lott won’t always be sheriff. The question is whether allowing the elected sheriff to oversee police protection in the city would be more efficient, preserve a high-quality service and provide accountable leadership.

This idea must be thoroughly vetted to ensure that it doesn’t lead to negative unintended consequences. There are many questions that must be answered. For example, would — or even could — the sheriff be given power that supersedes the city manager’s legal authority to hire and fire?

Given the current environment, Columbia wasn’t ready to have this conversation. Trying to force this change at such an inopportune time only served to bring unnecessary negative scrutiny upon an idea that, quite frankly, should be the future of law enforcement in Richland County.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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