April 24, 2013

Editorial: Randy Scott’s exit restarts revolving door for Columbia police chief

RANDY SCOTT’S tearful resignation Monday marks yet another frustrating chapter in the ongoing story of the city’s inability to seal — or at least slow — the revolving door at the police chief’s office.

RANDY SCOTT’S tearful resignation Monday marks yet another frustrating chapter in the ongoing story of the city’s inability to seal — or at least slow — the revolving door at the police chief’s office.

Chief Scott cited stress and post-traumatic stress disorder as his reason for resigning, effective May 1. Acting chief Ruben Santiago has been named interim chief. Monday was the first time Mr. Scott had spoken since taking unexplained, indefinite leave more than three weeks ago. During that time, city officials provided little information as rumors swirled about his absence.

Unfortunately, the news is all too familiar to Columbia. Since 2007, all but one of its six permanent and interim chiefs have left prematurely, mostly due to self-inflicted wounds. Dean Crisp, hired following a three-year period without a chief, retired abruptly in September 2007 amid criticism he allowed family and friends at crime scenes. He served only three years.

Interim Chief Harold Reaves left in November 2007 after coming under fire for rehiring an officer Mr. Crisp had fired and reversing suspensions and demotions given to officers involved in a test-taking scandal.

Tandy Carter was fired in May 2010 after two years because of his inexplicable and unacceptable refusal to call in an outside law enforcement agency to investigate a car crash involving Mayor Steve Benjamin.

Interim Chief Carl Burke retired earlier than planned in October 2010, after it was revealed that he hadn’t completed certification to carry a weapon.

When efforts to place the police department under Richland Sheriff Leon Lott failed, Mr. Scott was hired and quickly impressed city officials, who thought their problems were solved. Why wouldn’t they? Chief Scott did an admirable job turning around a department that was on the brink. In his two and a half years, he restored officers’ confidence and the public’s trust by overhauling the undermanned, underfunded department that had suffered from missteps by the rank and file, a lack of manpower, inadequate training and high turnover.

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 a mandatory 15-day wait. But just months later, he took unexpected leave. City manager Teresa Wilson said she had become aware of workplace issues involving the chief and had considered disciplining him; she now says the inquiry into his professional conduct is over.

While we appreciate Mr. Scott’s service and respect his request to be allowed time to get his life back on track — and we pray he does — troublesome questions remain.

For example, what possessed city leaders to spend nearly $52,000 in public money to purchase retirement credits on behalf of Chief Scott so that he could take early retirement? That was unacceptable. And now the city has nothing to show for it.

With Mr. Scott’s departure, there will inevitably be questions about whether the positive momentum he established can continue.

And the reemergence of the revolving door at the chief’s office should raise new questions about the city’s inability to hold on to a top cop. There is no reason a capital city the size of Columbia should struggle to keep a police chief in place.

Is it simply dumb luck? Are city officials, led by the city manager, bad at hiring? Or is it a systemic failure?

While Mr. Scott cited the tragic death in 2005 of a deputy he hired while at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department as the source of his post-traumatic stress disorder, he also noted that being police chief is a tough job. A stressful job.

Could Columbia’s council-manager form of government exact too heavy a toll on the police chief? While the chief is hired by the city manager, he quickly learns he must answer to the mayor, City Council and even community leaders. Unlike the city manager — who reports to (and is unlikely to stand up to) — the mayor and council, a full-time, strong mayor answers only to voters; he could insulate the police chief from a meddlesome council and parochial demands.

Whatever the problem, Columbia must seal that revolving door to ensure consistent leadership at the police department — and residents’ long-term safety.

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