City Council going thru the motions on “consolidation”


Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was overheard at a recent dinner at the Capitol City Club for Trinity Baptist Church speaking with a citizen about the “proposed” plan to have Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott take over management of the Columbia Police Department. Benjamin was heard saying to the gentleman, “…The city should get a police chief and let him do his job, now it appears that we’re hiring a personality…”

Benjamin may have been shinning the citizen on. He pushed the consolidation plan as a candidate and before Columbia City Council fired former Police Chief Tandy Carter over his car accident investigation.

Back in February during the mayoral campaign, then candidate Benjamin was quoted in the Columbia Star as saying: “Council supported the public safety consolidation plan but no one stepped forward to lead the effort and it failed. As mayor, I will be that leader and take on comprehensive consolidation. We have so much potential and fear has kept us from living up to it for too long.”

Thus, the four public meetings in the city’s four council districts to discuss the possibility of Lott managing the police department could be labeled as window dressing.

Even so, the city kicked off the first two of four public meetings this week in the Eau Claire and Woodland Park communities with two up coming sessions scheduled at the Capital Senior and Cecil Tillis Centers next week. Lott will also be the guest speaker at the Columbia Council of Neighborhoods’ General Meeting on Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 5:30pm. The meeting will take place at the Eau Claire Print Building on Ensor Avenue.

If the consolidation plan goes through the CPD would continue to exist under the management of Lott, who would run both agencies. Such an agreement would be unprecedented in the state’s history.

But there are several political and legal issues to overcome. At the top of the list is citizens’ concern that the set up gives Lott too much power. Some fear that Richland County could find itself it a situation much like Arizona’s Maricopa County where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been repeatedly accused of racial profiling, civil liberties abuses and thumbing his nose at federal civil rights laws.

Other citizens raise these questions: What would happen if Lott left for a better job or other unforeseen circumstances? Or, would city council and residents want the sheriff running CPD if the sheriff were a Republican? What if Lott changed from one party to another?”

County residents worry that Lott will stretch himself and his department too thin and their services would suffer. Although all parties – Lott and City Council, say that the agreement is for Lott to manage CPD, Lott’s deputies have stepped up their enforcement activities in the city.

Additionally, will City Council, notorious for its inability to stay out of police business, stay out of the sheriff’s business? The day of his firing Chief Tandy Carter said, “I should be able to run my police department without being a puppet for politicians.” If the plan goes through Lott, although a politician himself, faces the same obstacle.

Then there are the legal hurdles.

Under Columbia’s form of government –council sets policy issues and the city manager runs the day-to-day operations. State law specifically states the ability to hire and fire city employees rests solely with the city manager. A 2002 state attorney general’s opinion says a City Council cannot take that authority away from the city manager.

Another issue: City employees have grievance rights, while sheriff’s deputies do not. Lott said that while he has the authority to fire people (in his department) without cause that he doesn’t. Thus the question becomes do CPD officers lose their rights or will sheriff’s deputies demand equal treatment?

Benjamin said the final authority for hiring and firing police officers would remain with the city manager, but he expects Lott would be involved in the process if the management contract were approved.

In the face of Benjamin’s drive to get the contract between the city and Lott in place, council members have repeatedly said that nothing had been decided, although they’ve been discussing the idea informally for several months. With Benjamin’s response to the legal questions, “I think all of those issues can be resolved in the contract,” it seems like almost a done deal.

And what about the Finney Report?

After his firing, Carter mentioned the 2007 report by the independent city-appointed commission led by former, retired Chief Justice Ernest Finney. The report was released the year before Carter took over in Columbia. The report shows a police department where officers don’t get the training and mentoring they need to do their jobs or advance. Communication between the police officers and their superiors is poor or nonexistent. And the city’s politicians constantly interfere with the department, requesting special attention to cases in their districts, and undermining the authority of the chief.

The report states: “There is a perception across ranks that the police chief’s autonomy to run the Department is compromised by undue influence from both City Council members and city leadership. This is seen as detrimental to the police chief’s overall leadership function.”

The city has fired three police chiefs in the last three years. Dean Crisp, hired in 2004 to replace Charles Austin, who became city manager, was forced to resign in 2007. Crisp was criticized for allowing family members to visit crime scenes. Crisp’s replacement, Harold Reaves, resigned after only two months, under fire for reversing punishments for some officers who’d gotten in trouble for cheating on an exam. Carl Burke, who has been with the department for years, is now serving as interim chief for the city.

Carter was fired because he refused in several situations to turn over investigations to other departments, and pushing back against the financial restrictions that kept him from hiring more officers and paying them more. Lott would inherent the same political conditions.

Also, what about charges that Lott’s department routinely profiles African American citizens? In a story in The State in April of 2008, in the period reviewed (7/1/07-2/1/08), of 4861 drivers stopped by Richland County sheriff’s deputies, 3,186, or about 66 percent, were black – about 19 percentage points higher than the county’s 47 percent black population. “That was the biggest such gap for any sheriff’s department in the state that issued at least 100 warnings during the period.”

Benjamin and City Council have yet to explain how concerns about profiling will be dealt with if the consolidation plan goes through.

Finally, Lott presently has a citizen’s advisory council. Although the council, whose members are appointed by Lott, has no real enforcement power, will it take on citizen’s complains in regards to CPD and how will those grievances be resolved?

And, ignored or dismissed in all the consolidation talk is the formation of an independent citizens’ police review board for both departments.

Still, despite questions and concerns, Columbia City Council seems intent on consolidation. If adopted, only time will tell if it’s a good or bad thing. And, it remains to be seen whether or not some citizen or citizens’ group will challenge the set-up, should it take place, in court.