The worst-kept secret in Columbus has finally come true, as multiple reliable sources have confirmed that Columbus Police Chief Selvain “Lightning” McQueen has officially retired from his post after less than three years in office. McQueen allegedly turned in his letter of resignation to Mayor Robert Smith within the last week and is leaving the department while on vacation, much as another former department head, Columbus Fire and Rescue Chief Ken Moore, did less than a month ago.
The writing has been on the wall since last February when McQueen was famously asked “are you leaving” during an executive session of the city council. At the time, McQueen was coy and somewhat dismissive of the query, but it brought to light a more serious rift between McQueen and city leadership, one which developed quickly after McQueen took over the reins from former CPD Chief Joe St. John in the summer of 2011.
At the time of St. John’s dismissal, the mayor and council put on an elaborate charade under the guise of a nationwide search for a new chief. The smoke-and-mirror operation functioned more like a wide-open window, with the clear goal to promote then Interim Chief McQueen to chief. That plan became crystal clear when he was summarily appointed later that fall. McQueen inherited a department already on the edge of disarray, with a shortage of experienced officers compounding the problems he faced from day one: a heavy-handed mayor, lack of equipment and a full-fledged crime wave tearing through the Friendly City. McQueen was the fourth chief in less than ten years, and veteran officers’ allegiances had already taken its toll on the force. Several tenured cops had left the force after butting heads with St.John (and the mayor) in 2010-11, and McQueen lost even more in his first few months in office.
Some officers, both former and current, claim McQueen played favorites at the beginning, sometimes to help friends and sometimes to please the occasionally overbearing whims of the mayor and council that gave him the job. Whether those claims are true or not, most impressions of favoritism went out the window after McQueen’s first year at the helm when longtime favorites of both the mayor and council were transferred, suspended or demoted. McQueen had several run-ins with local media outlets, including the Packet and the Dispatch, during his tenure, with most incidents relating to his handling of several high-profile arrests, including the arrest of one of Mayor Robert Smith’s adult sons.
As McQueen began to fall out of favor with certain council members in late 2012, the search for his replacement began (mostly behind closed doors.) Although who made first contact is up for debate, it appears that either Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem or Mayor Robert Smith met with then-Tupelo Police Chief Tony Carleton in the early spring of 2013. Whomever asked him to dance first is moot, because both political puppeteers took the lead and managed to sway the seasoned vet away from his hometown. Months of rumors swirled around town throughout the summer of 2013 before the council made it official in the fall and hired Carleton away from Tupelo after a new administration in their city hall made it clear he probably wouldn’t last (imagine that).
Both McQueen and the powers that be had clearly forged a plan for his departure at this point, and Carleton was brought on board to serve as assistant chief alongside the perennial assistant chief, Joe Johnson. McQueen was initially expected to walk off into the sunset in the first quarter of 2014, but as the weeks and months went on, he left it a mystery as to his planned escape. During that time, confusion and suspicion built among the ranks at the department, with more ranking officers leaving the force – many fleeing to the greener grass at the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department.
During the extended waiting period, what looked to be Carleton’s most valuable asset was tragically lost to health problems. Investigations Commander Don English passed away from a heart attack in late March. English, who was hired alongside Carleton last year, had quickly made an impact with both the department as well as with city leadership. With a reputation as a no-nonsense professional, English had quickly revamped an investigations department that has had a less-than-stellar reputation in recent years.
Carleton will bring in his own guys; in fact he’s already started, and he will try and mold the department in his own image. That’s what McQueen did, and St John before him, and on and on and on. That is the problem. Columbus now has their fourth police chief in less than ten years, and that’s no way to build trust with the public at large. McQueen is bowing out following an 18-month run that saw crime rates fall dramatically in the city, and that’s no small matter. I do believe a large part of the citizenry doesn’t know that things are better, and that fault may lie on McQueen’s now abandoned desk.
McQueen was many things, but he was not the best at communicating with the public, although he was great at writing letters, quoting everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Harry Potter. In both private and public, I often encouraged him to share more details and specifics of what the department did, but that was not really his style. I’m not saying he covered things up, I’m just saying he was trying to do too many things at the same time, much do the detriment of his reputation. He was also trying to do a big job with a small staff. According to statements McQueen recently made at a neighborhood watch meeting, the department sits somewhere around 54 officers, far short of the 75 he believes they need to be effective. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of the officers on duty have less than two years on the force and you have a recipe for trouble.
Carleton should be able to pull a few friends from other departments once he takes charge, but for the time being he will need to rely heavily on a small core group of leaders that have weathered the various storms of the last ten years. I believe his biggest challenge will be the same as McQueen’s and as St. John’s before him: keep the politicians happy without compromising your integrity. The city isn’t necessarily in disarray, but it is in the midst of a lot of changes.
With McQueen’s retirement, only about half of the department heads in the city have been in their position for much more than a year. Along with McQueen, Columbus Chief Financial Officer Mike Bernsen and Fire Chief Kenneth Moore have all left the city quickly and unceremoniously, all reportedly citing the heavy hands of local politicians as the main reason for their departures. Federal Programs Director Travis Jones stepped down recently, and Public Works Director Casey Bush, in office less than a year since the tragic passing of Mike Pratt, is under fire after a recent productivity audit showed his team under-performing to the tune of nearly one million dollars a year.
McQueen is leaving because he’s sick of it, plain and simple. Whether you like the guy or not, like his department or personality or whatever, this much change is not good. I can only hope that whomever the new police chief is, as well as the new fire chief, can withstand the meddling hands of local leaders and forge a new path. Carleton will need to set boundaries and stick by them from day one to stand a chance; I hope he’s up for it.
As for McQueen as a person, I’m gonna miss the guy. He was nice enough to us through the end of his tenure, and, as a chief, he was great for headlines. From quoting Harry Potter to his public disputes with the daily, he was always, if anything, entertaining.
But now the baton will be handed to Carleton, who must run the gauntlet of political interference and micromanagement until one day when he, too, may become overwhelmed with the burden as the city’s top cop. But Carleton, McQueen, et al are merely stewards of justice for the people of the Friendly City. What’s important is public safety, and that is the noble task that must be continued. But as Carleton experienced firsthand during a particularly feisty tail-chewing during an executive session, the Friendly City ain’t always so friendly. And to McQueen, as he rides into the sunset, I say the words from the UK, “God Save McQueen.”