Opinion Extra

Skip Holbrook: Good police department built on good community relationships

S.C. Public Safety Director Leroy Smith helps a white supremacist out of the heat at the July 18 KKK rally at the State House.
S.C. Public Safety Director Leroy Smith helps a white supremacist out of the heat at the July 18 KKK rally at the State House. AP

By now, most of us have seen the picture of state Public Safety Director Leroy Smith assisting KKK rally participants to find relief from the intense heat during the State House rally.

That picture clearly depicts actions of a guardian — a protector, keeper, defender — and is representative of the countless acts of professionalism, genuine decency and selflessness by line officers and police executives that I have witnessed since my arrival in Columbia just over a year ago.

Many other law enforcement professionals working the same rally were in tactical gear, which can conjure up images of a warrior.

As the KKK rally and the overlapping black-power rally showed us, good police officers must be both guardians and warriors, depending on the circumstances. First and foremost, we must act as guardians to safeguard the constitutional rights of all we are sworn to protect and serve. But when dealing with violent individuals who threaten community safety, we must be ready to employ warrior-like skills to protect themselves and others.

The men and women of the Columbia Police Department and of our state and local law enforcement partners strike this critical balance routinely, as they put their lives on the line day in and day out with great personal sacrifice. This certainly has been the case over the past few weeks, and for that, I am grateful.

Police work is not easy. Policing is a complex profession with multiple missions. We are most often thought of as first responders to criminal activity, but we also work diligently to prevent crime. We protect the constitutional rights of our citizens, assist and protect vulnerable populations, and provide security for neighborhoods and events. We often find ourselves as negotiators of peace in emotional and potentially volatile situations.

Relationships are the foundation of every aspect of our work.

There has been much scrutiny of police-community relations in many cities as a result of tragic events that have occurred during enforcement actions. South Carolina has not been immune to these events and has suffered great tragedy, causing sorrow and even anger. But unlike other states, where such incidents have incited violence and unrest, the people of South Carolina have distinguished themselves by responding with grace and dignity, calling for unity, not divisiveness. That speaks volumes about the character of South Carolinians, as well as the relationships that have been established within our communities and between our law enforcement agencies.

I believe all successes we achieve in law enforcement are due to collaboration among law enforcement agencies and our partnerships with the community. Of course, there is always room for improvement. We must continue to work together to make those improvements through collaborative, innovative strategies that not only address issues of crime and safety but also further our communities’ trust and confidence in law enforcement.

As we all know, innovation requires risk. Setbacks occur, and mistakes are made. We must be willing to acknowledge them, learn from them and continue to move forward together. As the chief of the Columbia Police Department, I have been inspired by the willingness of city officials and community members to take risks of innovation, supporting efforts to improve our department and public safety in general. As we work to foster even stronger partnerships, we can overcome any challenges while ensuring both citizen and officer safety.

I am proud to be a member of this community and honored to serve among our brave men and women in uniform.

Mr. Holbrook is the Columbia police chief; contact him at chiefholbrook@columbiasc.net.