At bottom: Read a letter released Friday by Chief Randy Scott in the wake of the Sponseller search and the resulting staff separations.
Two commanders who are longtime veterans of the Columbia police force are no longer with the department as a result of an internal review into the case of a missing lobbyist whose body was found Tuesday.
Chief Randy Scott announced late Thursday that the deputy chief of administration/investigations has been fired. He also said he had accepted the retirement of the captain of investigations.
The internal probe into the department’s mishandling of the search for Tom Sponseller will continue, Scott said in a statement.
Sponseller’s body was found 10 days after he was first reported missing, in a room in his office building’s parking garage at 1122 Lady St. He died the day he was reported missing of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to preliminary autopsy results.
The officers no longer with the department are former Deputy Chief Isa P. Greene, a more than 30-year veteran of the department and one of Scott’s three top officers, and former Capt. J.P. Smith, who had been at the department for more than 25 years. The police department did not name the officers, citing personnel policy. However, those two are listed in those positions on the department’s website.
“I do not by any stretch of the imagination take this decision lightly,” Scott said. “Since I became chief, I have been working toward improving the department’s abilities to assist the citizens of Columbia. We are accountable to every citizen.”
Deputy Chief Leslie Wiser, who is the department’s chief of staff, and Lt. Dana Oree, who was second-in-command in investigations, will oversee the investigations division, Scott said.
The department’s investigators had searched Sponseller’s office building on three previous visits, beginning with the day the lobbyist was reported missing by his family. On Feb.19, 20 officers were ordered to search the building room by room. On Feb. 25, officers searched with cadaver dogs.
Also, investigators failed to search Sponseller’s locked office desk, where Hospitality Association employees on Tuesday found empty gun packaging and a three-page note Sponseller had left. The association’s acting executive director noticed the desk drawers were locked and asked the other employees to find a key. Once a key was located, they opened the drawer, according to Bob McAlister, a spokesman for the association.
After employees notified Scott of their discovery, he said he personally went to the building to oversee a door-to-door search that led to the discovery of the body.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and city manager Steve Gantt said Thursday they supported Scott’s decision to make changes on his command staff.
Benjamin issued a statement saying there were troubling questions over how the Sponseller investigation had been handled.
“Today Chief Scott responded to those concerns with deliberate and decisive action sending a clear message that anything less than a full commitment to integrity and professionalism will not be tolerated at the Columbia Police Department.
“Let me be clear: Public trust in the Police Department must be maintained. Chief Scott has worked hard to that effect building significant and deserved goodwill throughout the community, and we cannot allow it to be squandered by the actions of a few.”
Scott, who was named interim chief in October 2010 and permanent chief in January 2011, declined Thursday night to give a more detailed explanation behind his decision.
But Gantt said part of the problem was that investigators leading the Sponseller case gave Scott incorrect information about what steps had been taken to find the missing lobbyist.
Officers were telling Scott they had searched every room in the 12-story building and three-level parking garage, Gantt said. Sponseller was last seen at the Hospitality Association’s offices.
Scott was passing that information along to Gantt, who said he was providing updates to City Council.
“Randy had asked that question three times and had gotten the same answer three times,” Gantt said.
“I told him he needed to go as far up the chain he needs to go to make sure we have the best investigative division possible,” Gantt said.
The department’s Special Victims Unit led the search for Sponseller. That’s also the unit that is leading the search for Amir Jennings, a Columbia toddler who was last seen alive by his extended family on Thanksgiving. The boy’s mother, Zinah Jennings, has been in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center since Dec. 30 on a cruelty to children charge and will not discuss her child with police.
Smith was in direct command of that unit. He was a veteran investigator who was promoted in June to serve as captain of the criminal investigations division. In the $78,000 per year job, Smith was in charge of nine units, including narcotics, the gang task force and violent crimes.
Smith reported directly to Greene, who earned $86,879 annually. She was promoted by Scott in November 2010 to become the third deputy chief on his command staff. She was the only one of the three deputy chiefs at the department who had been promoted internally. Previously, she had served as commander of the city’s metro region.
In his statement, Scott said the personnel actions were in the best interest of the police department.
“The city has a team of excellent officers and investigators who care about Columbia,” Scott said. “I want the best work from everyone, every day. And when we don’t get those results, I’m disappointed and change must happen.”