March 29, 2014

Editorial: Columbia’s leaders must help new police chief meet challenges

‘WHAT’S the over-under on how long Columbia’s new police chief will last?”

‘WHAT’S the over-under on how long Columbia’s new police chief will last?”

The mere fact that people are asking some version of that question — mostly in jest — illustrates the challenge William Holbrook will have when he takes over as leader of the Columbia Police Department next month. When he is sworn in April 11, he will become the ninth person to lead the department since 2007, and many hope he will end the revolving door at the police chief’s office. They had hoped the same for the last permanent chief, and the one before him.

Mr. Holbrook has his work cut out for him. He assumes leadership over a department fraught with challenges — a black eye from a recently completed investigation into an alleged “black ops” plot involving the former interim chief that led to no charges, low department morale, a wary and weary public and a fractured and (at least in the past) sometimes meddlesome City Council.

He must energize officers, reestablish the police department’s tarnished image, build effective relationships with the community and navigate the city’s anti-accountability governing structure. Oh yeah, and he’ll be expected to keep crime down and devise solutions to gang and youth violence in Five Points, north Columbia and other parts of the city.

The new chief comes with high recommendations from many in government and the community in Huntington, W. Va., where he led a department a quarter the size of the one he will direct here in Columbia. In addition to serving as chief in Huntington, Mr. Holbrook worked for the Charlotte Police Department and the N.C. Bureau of Investigation, North Carolina’s version of SLED.

Mr. Holbrook has pledged not to let Columbia down, but it’s equally important for the capital city not to let him down. He can’t meet these challenges alone. He’s going to need help — from the community as well as city leadership. Any law enforcement officer will tell you that fighting crime requires the help of the community: Citizens must keep their eyes and ears open, watch out for their neighbors and work with and contact authorities at the first sign of trouble.

When she introduced Mr. Holbrook, City Manager Teresa Wilson stressed that he would report directly to her. While we much would prefer that the city operate under a strong-mayor system, the fact is that as long as council-manager is in place, the city manager supervises the police chief. So this new hierarchy is an improvement.

Unfortunately, the City Council — the city manager’s seven elected bosses — has a history of meddling into police matters. That’s something that must cease if Mr. Holbrook is to have a real chance at success. The council’s job is to make sure that the police department has the resources and support it needs to keep citizens safe. Any concerns about law enforcement should be expressed to and through Ms. Wilson. Bypassing the city manager creates unfair and undue pressure on a police chief.

We welcome Mr. Holbrook to Columbia and wish him much success. So should City Council.

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