Editorial: Columbia officials must disclose details about police chief’s absence

04/12/2013 12:00 AM

04/12/2013 12:25 AM

RANDY SCOTT has done an admirable job in his two and a half years as Columbia’s police chief, beginning with restoring officers’ confidence and the public’s trust by overhauling the undermanned, underfunded department that had been rattled by a testing scandal, low morale and inconsistent leadership.

While he has grappled with tough issues such as crime and violence in Five Points and the embarrassment of officers not finding the body of Tom Sponseller for 10 days after he shot himself in a room off a parking garage in his downtown office building, the department has made laudable progress. City officials say crime is down in practically every category under Mr. Scott’s leadership.

The chief had done such a good job that when he resigned in December to take advantage of changes in the state retirement system, city officials quickly hired him back after the mandatory 15-day waiting period. Mr. Scott said the time away was nerve-wracking and that he was glad to be back with the city, to which he was committed.

But last week, just months later, he took an unexplained, indefinite leave of absence, saying in a letter that he has some “personal issues to take care of.” City manager Teresa Wilson said it was “possible” she would have taken disciplinary action had Mr. Scott not taken leave. She said the chief’s superiors had been talking with him about complaints her office had received.

Ms. Wilson wouldn’t discuss details, saying Mr. Scott’s leave is a personnel matter, as if to suggest that state law prohibits the matter from being discussed. There is no such prohibition.

To the contrary, the absence of Columbia’s chief of police is very much a public matter. The fact that Ms. Wilson acknowledged she had considered disciplining the chief suggests there is something amiss here that would affect his official duties. If indeed complaints have been made against an employee paid with tax dollars — complaints that might have led to discipline — the public has the right to know what those charges are and to view any related documents.

We certainly appreciate Mr. Scott’s tireless efforts on behalf of city residents and wish him well, but as a public official, he is answerable to the people who pay him. One reason many people choose to live in Columbia and pay higher taxes is the added level of police protection.

Considering that the city has had a revolving door at the police chief’s office — it has had seven permanent and interim chiefs in six years — there is overriding interest in knowing the status of the current chief who seemed to be the answer to the many troubles the top job has endured. Mr. Scott’s sudden absence, whatever the reason, naturally raises concerns.

City officials haven’t answered the basic question of how much leave time Mr. Scott has — he continues to draw his salary — let alone what caused him to take leave and how long he could be out. They must provide answers to those and other questions to clear the air as much as possible. Citizens should not have to guess at the truth about what is happening with the police chief. They shouldn’t have to chase rumors — and there are many.

Upon taking the helm during Mr. Scott’s absence, acting Chief Ruben Santiago said command staff and supervisors were meeting with officers to discuss expectations and hear concerns. “If there are any questions or rumors out there, we want to be sure they are getting proper information about what’s going on,” he said.

That was a good strategy to reassure officers to help them stay focused on keeping the city safe. The people the officers protect and serve — those who pay the bills — deserve no less, and the city manager and City Council should oblige them.

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