Oscar Lewis III is coming home.
The current Waynesboro chief of police will return to the Columbus Police Department after the Columbus City Council voted Tuesday to name him as the city’s new chief. Lewis worked 20 years with CPD from 1994 to 2014 before leaving to take the Waynesboro job, where he oversees a force of 18 officers.
It’s still uncertain when Lewis will begin his tenure as chief for Columbus. The Waynesboro Board of Aldermen meet on Feb. 2, and will likely take up his resignation then, according to Lewis.
Lewis, a native of Mobile, Alabama, came to Columbus via the U.S. Air Force, which he served in until 1998. He worked as an air traffic controller at Columbus Air Force Base.
Lewis started as part of CPD’s auxiliary force in 1994. He also worked a brief stint as a police officer for the Mississippi University for Women from 1997-98 before he started full time with CPD.
From there, Lewis rose through the ranks, to the narcotics unit to an internal affairs investigator and, ultimately, a patrol shift commander.
Lewis said he never wanted to leave Columbus, where his family still lives, but did so in order to advance his career.
“I saw the writing on the wall and applied for this position here (in Waynesboro) and thought that was going to be the only I way I was going to be able to grow any further in my law enforcement career,” Lewis said. “I thought about my wife and I being separated and being separated for the kids also, but I think about the military members that are deployed around the world that are separated from their families. In order to get the training and experience that I needed, this was a no-brainer for me, so I took that job.
“I just thank God that I’m able to come back home,” he added.
Though he’s worked in Waynesboro for nearly two years, Lewis said he still has strong ties to Columbus. His family lives here, he said, and he’s a deacon at Kingdom Vision International Church.
“I look forward to getting home and going to work,” Lewis said. “I look forward to working with the citizens and officers of the Columbus Police Department and trying to lead the department in a positive direction.”
‘We can’t hide behind the badge’
One of Lewis’ first tasks, he said, will be trying to mend the rift between CPD and the community. He said he’ll have to get settled in his new position to figure out what exactly should be done, but he shared a few general thoughts during an interview with The Dispatch on Friday.
Most importantly, Lewis said, officers have to treat people with respect. He said it’s often counterproductive for officers to be brusque with the public and that it will take education — both for the public and officers — on how to change that.
“Being in law enforcement, we have to understand that we can’t hide behind the badge,” Lewis said. “There are certain things we have to do to provide security and safety and protect the scene for evidentiary reasons, and a lot of times people don’t understand that. We can make or break a case with how we secure a scene or collect evidence or different things.
“But at the end of the day we have to be able to show compassion and be able to talk to people, but let them know that we know it’s a tragedy but we need their help…” he added. “Just ordering people around and talking to people like they’re children — that kind of stuff just doesn’t work.”
Lewis said it will probably take some training to change officer attitudes. He said he’ll have to determine how much work can be done to correct any issues.
“Training gets officers the tools that they need to go out here and do the job so we can administer justice the way it needs to be done,” he said. “You can’t just go out here and harass people or make up stuff — you can’t be driven by emotion. We have to do things right.”
Lewis will also turn his eye to shoring up the morale of a department that’s faced deep public scrutiny since the Oct. 16 police-involved shooting death of Columbus resident Ricky Ball.
Lewis said he doesn’t think it will be hard to help get officer morale back up — he said having stability and clear departmental policies should help tremendously.
He said it will also be important to find a way to allow officers to balance their personal lives while still ensuring that CPD sees to the public’s needs.
“With just talking to be people and treating people like human beings, you have to understand that their lives do not just revolve around police work,” Lewis said. “They have families. They have time that they want to be off.
“Just doing the right thing and providing some structure and having somebody leading them in the right direction,” he continued, “I think will do wonders for morale immediately.”
Lewis further pointed out that he plans to enforce the department’s policies strictly. He said he feels the only way the department can remain stable is by ensuring everyone does what they’re supposed to do.
That duty, Lewis said, falls on everyone — from young officers making an effort to follow the rules to supervisors taking the proper measures to make sure everyone is on the same page.
In the months since the Ball shooting, CPD has made efforts to quickly release information to the public through social media.
CPD’s Twitter account — @Columbus_MS_PD – went live on Nov. 23, 2015. Since then, it’s garnered more than 1,000 followers and has tweeted more than 200 times about ongoing or recent crimes, investigations, road closures, weather events and more.
Lewis said he wants to continue the department’s social media presence, even though he doesn’t use social media much personally.
“People love information,” he said. “They just have to understand that we have to get it to them when we can and when it’s most appropriate. That stuff helps us as well — if we’re looking for that type of car or this person or whatever is going on. It can help us and our investigation.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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