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Questions Raised about Chief Search Process

Clark lost position in Arkansas due to multiple allegations of sexual
harassment

Other seemingly qualified
applicants ignored

[I was a member of the selection committee responsible for recommending five applicants for the position of Chief of the Columbus Police Department. Nineteen of the 21 members met on October 12 to discuss the 25 candidates, but I was unable to attend. I did, however, send my five choices to the meeting via Human Resource Director Pat Mitchell. To the best of my knowledge, the selection process has ended. I am not a member of the newly formed subcommittee. The information below is the result of my own personal research, and has in no way been aided by information provided by the City of Columbus or by the résumés of any of the applicants. – Sarah Fowler]

Change may soon be coming to the Columbus Police Department. Whether that change will have a positive or negative effect on the department and the city of Columbus remains to be seen.

The uphill battle in the search for a new police chief is proving to be as dramatic a process as the former chief’s hasty exit.
After Joseph St. John’s firing in June of this year, the mayor and city council vowed to conduct a “nationwide search” for a new police chief. After extending the original August 25 deadline, the city closed the submission process on September 8. They received a total of 82 applications.

Mayor Robert Smith, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong and Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell narrowed those 82 applications to 25. Those 25 applications were then handed down to a 21-member selection committee. The committee was tasked with futher whittling down the applications to five.
Armstrong says the initial process of weeding out the résumés “didn’t take very long” and “was really quite easy.” The city’s C.O.O. marveled at some of the résumés received, saying that some of the applicants “didn’t meet the requirements at all. We wondered if they were even applying for the right job.”
Those requirements include a wish list from the city, such as that the hopefuls have experience leading a department as chief or assistant chief. The original requirements also demanded that each candidate have a college degree. However that requirement changed to “degree preferred” when the city extended the August 25 deadline.

Once the panel selected their top candidates, committee chairperson Birney Imes took the five names before the mayor and city council at last Tuesday night’s city council meeting. The chairman also informed the council that the committee had chosen three alternates should one or more of the top five candidates withdraw from the process. Between the time the selection committee met on Wednesday and Imes’s presentation of the names to the council on Tuesday, one of the committee’s original top five had already withdrawn himself from the running with an alternate taking his place.

During Tuesday’s meeting Imes also expressed the committee’s desire that a subcommittee be formed to run background checks on the individuals. Ward Five Councilman Kabir Karriem made the motion with Ward Six Councilman Bill Gavin seconding. Mayor Smith asked Imes if he would mind also chairing the subcommittee. Imes responded that he would not mind and would shoulder the responsibility.

The city declined to release the master list of applicants, the 25 contenders or the three alternates chosen by the selection committee. City officials also declined to say which top five candidate was initially an alternate, choosing instead to inform the public only of the current top five. Those five names are, in alphabetical order: Curtis Brame, of North Chicago, Ill.; Nathaniel Clark, of Albany, Ga.; Robert Spinks, of Sequim, Wash.; Sam Lathrop, of Beloit, Wis.; and Selvain McQueen, of Columbus.

The release of the candidates’ names sparked immediate controversy, with citizens taking to the Internet to voice their complaints and suspicions.

Nathaniel Clark

Nathaniel Clark initially appeared to be the only one of the fives candidates unmarked by controversy.However, Clark was the center of multiple sexual harassment  allegations in his former town of Pine Bluff, Ark. Clark was serving as the chief of police when, according to sources affiliated with the Pine Bluff Police Department, three women alleged that Clark sexually harassed them. A Civil Service hearing found Clark guilty of misconduct and fired him. Clark appealed the decision to the city council but they upheld the commissioner’s decision.
Jack Foster was a city councilman on the board when the board decided to uphold Clark’s firing. Foster says, however, that he did not vote to fire Clark, saying, “I could not vote in good faith to fire him. The allegations of sexual harassment were only allegations. I could not in good faith make the decision to terminate him.”
When reaching out to members of the Pine Bluff community, Foster was the only contact that would openly support Clark. The former councilman “doesn’t remember” when he served on the board and maintains that he doesn’t speak with Clark anymore. Shortly after he voted against firing Clark, Foster was removed from the board for embezzlement. He served two years in the state penitentiary.

Clark was a final candidate for the chief of police position in Columbus back in 2007. Armstrong says of Clark, “I thought Nathaniel Clark had very good qualifications and experience. I felt that way last time and I felt that way this time. I think he has solid law enforcement experience. Apparently a lot of people did. That’s why he was selected as one of the five.”
When asked about Clark’s firing in Arkansas, Armstrong said of the council’s decision not to hire him back in 2007, “I think everyone was well aware of the pros and cons with everyone involved.”
When speaking with a source affiliated with the Pine Bluff Police Department who wished to remain nameless, they said, “If Nathaniel Clark is the best you’ve got, I suggest you scrap the whole process and start from scratch.”

Of the five applicants, current Columbus Police Department Interim Chief Selvain McQueen is one of two without a bachelor’s degree. McQueen says he is “a few credits shy” of earning his bachelor’s in Mass Communications from Jackson State.

When asked if the job requirements were changed to benefit McQueen, Armstrong responded, “I could see how it might appear that way, but no.” When further asked the reason for the requirement change in the first place, Armstrong referred back to 2007 when former chief St. John was hired. The C.O.O. claims that a college degree was not required in 2007. ““When we went back to St. John it said ‘college degree preferred.’ I was surprised, I did not remember that. But we came to a collective decision to change the requirement to preferred.”
Armstrong further added that McQueen is not a shoo-in for the position. “No one needs to make any bets or assurances on what they think is going to happen. Individuals may have their minds made up but no collective decision has been made. I wouldn’t be part of this process if they had. I can assure you of that.”

In addition to his lack of a bachelor’s degree, which is not an issue according to the job qualifications, McQueen has filed three EEOC complaints against the department. The first was filed when the now interim chief was a homicide investigator. He alleged that former chief of police J.D. Sanders pulled him out of the investigation division and into patrol.
McQueen filed another complaint after Sanders allegedly took the lieutenant off of patrol and assigned him the task of tagging abandoned vehicles in Columbus.
The third and final complaint was filed after McQueen and another officer attended a week-long educational class for the department. McQueen alleged that his fellow officer and classmate’s expenses were reimbursed but his were not. When McQueen protested, he says he became the target of a racially motivated plan to oust him from the department under the hand of former police chief J.D. Sanders and former Mayor Jeffrey Rupp.
All three claims were settled.

McQueen says he filed the complaints because “I believed I had been discriminated against because of my race. It’s real simple, it’s real simple. I utilized a process available to me.” The interim chief also added, “As a law enforcement officer, I believe everyone should be allowed to exercise their rights through the processes available. This was available to me and I utilized it to pursue justice. As Chief, I pledge to have a fair, equal and equitable hiring and promotion process where every officer will be evaluated by ability, job performance and character and not by color. “
McQueen has served as interim chief since July.

Curtis Brame is the current commander of the support services division of the North Chicago Police Department. Brame has also been involved in litigation against his department. Brame filed a suit under The Whistleblower Act in which he alleged that the chief retaliated against him for disclosing information to the mayor concerning what he believed was criminal activity committed by the chief. The case was settled and Brame remains at the department.

Top five candidate Robert Spinks also left his department in the midst of controversy. Spinks was chief in Sequim, Washington when he was apparently asked to resign in June 2010. In a June 17, 2010 article in the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim City Manager Steve Burkett described Spinks as “bombastic” and “no longer a good match for Sequim’s needs.”
Before his time in Washington, Spinks was the chief in Milton-Freewater Oregon. Spinks left that position after he was placed on non-disciplinary administrative leave after he was accused of pressuring his officers to campaign for certain members for city council.
Lastly, candidate Sam Lathrop also left his former chief position in a dramatic fashion. Lathrop had been chief for six years in Madison, Wis, when he abruptly retired. According to NBC 15 in Madison, Lathrop retired “in the wake of an investigation into a possible relationship with a subordinate officer.” Lathrop acknowledged the affair but was not found guilty of any “official misconduct.”

The somewhat tarnished background of each of the five candidates raises concerns in top city officials. Armstrong says, “I am concerned with some of things that were revealed and reported by various individuals during Google searches, but we are going to go forward with the process. The subcommittee will ask more pertinent questions relative to their work performance, work experience and education. We will report those back to the mayor and city council and they will decide.”
Armstrong was also quick to add, though, that a candidate’s professional integrity is key. “We all slip and fall. It’s human nature. I’m not into condemning someone because of mistakes they made in the past. What does their professional record say? That’s what I’m interested in.”

When asked about the necessity of a subcommittee, Mitchell was insistent about the newly formed committee thoroughly checking the backgrounds of each applicant. However, she did voice her concerns regarding members of the media being on the committee and subcommittee. “I don’t think there is full capability of separating what you do for a living to being loyal to the purpose of the committee,” she said.
The media representatives were Imes, Steve Rogers and a Packet reporter – one person from each outlet. Imes is the publisher and editor of The Commercial Dispatch and Rogers is the assignment editor at WCBI. Both Imes and Rogers are members of the subcommittee, as well as being on the initial committee.
Media personnel were invited to be a part of the committee as well as local pastors, business owners and current chiefs throughout Mississippi.

Each member received a packet of information containing the résumés of 25 individuals. While none of the committee members can comment on specific résumé, the general consensus of the group seemed to be that the majority of the résumés were somewhat laughable, with some members wondering what the other 57 resumes held.
Committee and subcommittee member Melissa Cook said, “When I did receive the 25 applications, I knew that there had originally been 82. It made me curious about what the other applications looked like.”

Retired Lt. Colonel Gregory Harstad is a patrolman with the Columbus Police Department. He also applied for the chief’s position. The colonel has over 26 years in the Air Force and retired from Columbus Air Force Base in 2002. He then moved to his home state of North Dakota, where he was a state trooper for five years. He retired from the force in North Dakota, returned to Columbus and joined the department. He has been with the CPD for two years.
Mitchell says that his resume was not in the 25 resumes submitted to the committee members because he “did not have chief experience.” Harstad, however, feels that he is fully capable of leading the department – or at least should have been considered.
By being the task force commander for the 14th Flying Squadron at CAFB, Harstad contends that he does in fact have experience in a “chief” position. Harstad stated that the police force is considered “a paramilitary organization,” adding, “While in the military I was performing law enforcement on the largest scale possible.”
While his résumé was not one of the 25 given to committee members, the retired colonel submitted a three page letter to Mitchell asking they reconsider him for the position. Harstad is also asking that he “be allowed to participate in the interview process by the City Council.” The letter also states, “I believe that I have every quality and qualification that you said you wanted in a Chief, and I believe that I have a better overall ‘package’ than the candidates that have been selected to interview. I request that you review my qualifications, and determine that my military experience is as valuable, if not more, than any experience that was gained by other candidates. I believe that if I am included in the interview process I will be able to convince you, and the other members of the council, that I am a very worthy candidate.”
Harstad has a Master’s Degree in Aeronautical Science. He.was reportedly one of several officers to apply from within the department.

The “nationwide search” for chief resulted in the City of Columbus posting the job opening on www.careerbuilder.com and with The Clarion Ledger out of Jackson. Mitchell says the announcement was also posted on the bulletin boards at each department in the city. It was not advertised on the International Association of Chiefs of Police website, www.theiacp.org. Nor was it posted on www.officer.com or www.allpolicechiefsjobs.com. Mitchell says, “It didn’t make it on there in time.”

Imes called a meeting of subcommittee members on Tuesday, where Mitchell told them what they could and could not ask the five applicants. Once the subcommittee’s search is complete, they will again report back to the mayor and city council.
Members of the subcommittee are Imes, Rodgers, Cook, Representative Esther Harrison and local business owner Bobby Jordan. Armstrong says he and Mitchell will also serve on the subcommittee to ensure that members ask the appropriate questions and “do not expose the city to potential liability.”

According to Armstrong, mayor Robert Smith expects to have the selection process completed by the second city council meeting in December. Armstrong says “I think that’s doable. We’ve been at this since July. It should be done by then.”

If the council chooses a chief by year’s end, he or she will be the City’s fourth chief since 1999.

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