While Columbus councilmen mull a consultant’s report calling for the city’s police chief to be replaced, at least one officer is rising to defend her boss.
K.B. Turner, a certified law enforcement officer and head of the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Memphis, issued a multi-faceted report on the police department to city councilmen Tuesday — a report that included scathing criticism of Chief Oscar Lewis’ leadership and a recommendation councilmen remove him as chief. The council tabled action on Turner’s recommendation so they could have more time to discuss it.
Community Policing Officer Rhoda Sanders, however, hopes councilmen hang onto Lewis, who became chief in January 2016.
“Chief Lewis, I think, is a good police chief,” she said. “He’s doing a good job bringing us together with what he has to work with. If given the opportunity, I think Chief Lewis is going to be a very good chief.”
Turner’s report pointed specifically to a steep drop in staffing on Lewis’ watch — at one point in late 2016, the force had fallen to 44 officers of a budgeted 67 — and what Turner perceived as the chief’s lack of effort to reverse the trend. Councilmen hired Turner as a consultant for $19,000 in January, and six months later, CPD is set to soon be fully staffed.
The report also included police officer questionnaires noting their mistrust of Lewis, but Sanders said she doesn’t feel that way.
She also noted Lewis inherited a department in crisis — one that was dealing with the December 2015 officer-involved shooting death of Ricky Ball.
“When he got here, it was rough,” Sanders said. “After the (Ricky Ball) shooting, we had a lot of division in our department. We had a lot of people from our community come in our department. We united and came back together. He had a lot to do with that — with us coming back together.
“After something like that happens in a police department, yeah we lost a lot of people,” she added. “I would just hate to see our department suffer so much. We need some stability.”
Assistant Police Chief Fred Shelton, who councilmen passed over for the chief role when they hired Lewis, said he supported any of Turner’s recommendations that would improve CPD. He declined to speak directly to whether Lewis should be removed other than to say that was the council’s decision.
“Leadership changes are up to the council,” he said. “My job is to follow the orders and directive put in front of me. That hasn’t changed.”
Lewis didn’t respond to attempts to reach him for comment.
Mayor and Council
Of the four councilmen The Dispatch reached on Thursday, two — Ward 2’s Joseph Mickens and Ward 6’s Bill Gavin — openly supported keeping Lewis as chief while two others — Ward 1’s Gene Taylor and Ward 5’s Stephen Jones — said they need more time to think about it.
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box and Ward 4 Councilman Fred Jackson did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Mickens called the whole process of bringing Turner on as a consultant a “witch hunt.”
“He was brought in for one reason,” Mickens said. “My interpretation of his reason for coming in was to tell us what we need to do to improve the PD. … I didn’t know he was coming in to tell us we need to change our leadership. That’s not his role, and I don’t know who gave him or told him that was his role. The only person we can accept a recommendation from is the mayor, not no J.B., Curly or whatever his name is.”
Mayor Robert Smith, speaking to The Dispatch, disagreed with Mickens’ assessment.
“(Turner) came in and did what we asked him to do,” Smith said. “You know as well as I do the consultant can make his recommendation. … Once he makes his recommendation to the proper authorities, it is up to them look at his evaluation and decide, ‘Where do we go from here?'”
The council voted unanimously to hire Turner shortly after Lewis remarked in a press conference that Columbus’ crime rate could be tough to tackle because of biblical “end times” prophecy.
Smith referenced the comments after the Jan. 17 meeting when councilmen hired Turner, but dismissed assertions Turner was hired specifically to lay the groundwork for removing Lewis as false. He said Turner was instead brought in to provide outside expertise to help improve the department.
Smith pointed out, though, that Lewis’ comments prompted great concern among citizens.
“I knew, from there, as mayor I had to do something to help try to calm things down,” he said. “That’s when I went to the council and said, ‘Hey, I wish you all would support me in bringing a consultant in here.'”
Mickens said he felt it was inappropriate for Tuner, who presented a series of negative comments collected from citizen and police officer surveys during Tuesday’s council meeting, to do that in open session.
Mickens said he thought Turner presented “excellent ideas” in other areas of his report, but he completely disagrees with the consultant’s analysis of Lewis’ performance as chief. Even so, he acknowledges Lewis can improve in some areas.
“Communication — that’s what I heard from some employees,” he said. “You’ll hear that from anybody, but still, when people get to talk about it, you have to weigh it. Better communication with your staff — I know he’s young, but you have to learn to trust the people under you.”
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said he was shocked to see Turner’s recommendation for a leadership change. He said councilmen will have to give Turner’s report serious thought but indicated he’d like to hear Lewis’ side of things before reaching any sort of decision.
“I want to keep Chief Lewis if possible,” he said. “I think he’s a good man. We have some time and money invested in him from hiring him to do this job, but there are some deep, hard questions from this report.”
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones said he wasn’t surprised by Turner’s recommendation for a leadership change. However, he said that doesn’t mean the city should press ahead in seeking a new chief.
“I think we need to implement some of the other things in his report before we get rid of the chief,” Jones said. “Give him a chance to correct some of those things (Turner) is suggesting, and we’ll take a look at it at a later date.”
Members of the CPD Citizen Overview Committee discussed the leadership recommendation portion for the report for about a half-hour in executive session during Thursday’s meeting.
Committee Chairman Steven James said Turner’s recommendation surprised him. He said he liked Lewis, but it was hard to talk specifically to the professional matters in the report because he doesn’t keep up with Lewis on professional matters from day to day.
“I think a lot of our police chief,” James said. “I think he’s a good man.
“When you hire (outside consultants) to come in, you have to be prepared to accept what they say, good or bad,” he later added. “Sometimes they say things we might not necessarily see or might not necessarily agree with. For him to make those recommendations and with him being a professional, I’m sure there was something that he witnessed or noticed or saw.”
Committee member Lee Roy Lollar said he was “flabbergasted” when he learned of the recommendation.
“I think it might be a wake-up call for all of us, and those of us in leadership,” he said. “I was actually shocked (to see the recommendation). But since then I’ve been doing some research, and I’ve found out some facts that might support that recommendation. … I would look at this, then sit down and talk to the man and go from there. I don’t think we need to do anything extreme.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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