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Pine Ridge's fifth police chief in three years out after special called meeting of town’s counci

Pine Ridge, SC (Paul Kirby) – After a specially called meeting of the Town of Pine Ridge’s Town Council, their fifth full-time or interim police chief in less than three full years has resigned. Chief Keith Parks, hired in December of 2019, said he turned in his letter of resignation after the meeting Wednesday night.

In a phone call to The Ledger afterward, he said the micromanagement of the department by the town’s leaders was the reason for his action. Parks said in that interview he wanted the citizens to know and hear the truth and not some false or malicious rumors. He concluded by stating, “I am not a puppet and I am not going to be their puppet, I’m the police. Politics has no place when it comes to policing.”

The instability in the department started in March of 2018, 5 months after Pine Ridge elected its first new mayor in decades. Robert Wells, who served on town council and whose term ended in 2017, publicly said he was not running again for his council, he was retiring from local government.

Longtime Mayor David Busbee was unopposed at the end of the filing period for the fall election. Four or five days prior to the election, Wells’ son announced via social media his father would mount a write-in campaign for mayor. By the time Busbee was able to begin campaigning, Wells won the position of mayor by write-in. Within moments of being sworn in, Wells appointed himself as police commissioner. He also appointed one other council member to round out the two-person Pine Ridge’s Police Commission.

In 2017 and into 2018, Pine Ridge’s Police Chief Billy Parker was recovering from surgery for a work-related injury. At Parker’s recommendation, the town promoted Lieutenant Eddie Powell to interim police chief. Then, in a March 2018 specially called meeting of the town’s council, they adjourned into executive session. At that point, the council empowered the two-person Public Safety Committee to handle all personnel matters related to the police department. Within moments of reconvening the public session, Mayor Wells called Officer Johnathan Carswell into an anteroom and terminated him. Interim Police Chief Eddie Powell was demoted to patrolman and quickly resigned leaving the town without a police department. They said that they were “separating” with Chief Parker, who was still recovering from his injury. Parker said the next day he knew nothing about it. He eventually learned he was being let go.

The town’s Police Commission next hired a well-respected Columbia Police Department sergeant, Nicholas Scott, to be chief. He was sworn in at a May 2018 meeting. The community seemed to love him and the department’s new lieutenant, Joshua Starkey. However, four months later, following an unsuccessful attempt to fire the chief in executive session, Scott resigned, and Starkey left. Scott cited the mayor’s meddling in the department’s day-to-day operations as his reason for leaving. In an interview with The Ledger then, Chief Scott said he could no longer operate in good conscious in such a hostile work environment. “The Pine Ridge Police Department is not actually able to be a police department as long as the mayor is there and operating in the way he is,” Scott stated.

Frankie Neely, who worked for Pine Ridge part-time, was named interim chief. He had over 25 years of law enforcement experience and worked for the SC National Guard full-time. He held the interim position until 2019 when he asked the town’s leaders to hire a full-time chief for the department. He was not interested in leaving the SCNG for the job but felt the citizens deserved a full-time chief.

The town interviewed several capable candidates before hiring Keith Parks in December of 2019 as police chief. He was certainly qualified for the job. Parks had earned a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s in Public Administration and had numerous accolades and recognitions. He had graduated the FBI’s Leadership Institute, Command Institute, and Executive Leadership Institute. He is also a Gangs Specialist who is certified through the State of South Carolina. Now, he has gone too.

It remains to be seen where the department and town goes from here. The empowering of the Public Safety Commission is an obvious but very legal move to circumvent the state’s Freedom of Information or “Sunshine” act. If the entire council took a vote regarding employment during executive session, or anytime a quorum of council was present, they would have to tell the public what they voted to do when they returned to open session. By empowering the two-person Public Safety Commission to make hiring and firing decisions again Wednesday night, these two can meet without public notice and behind closed doors without ever having to notify the public or say what was done. The Commission does not constitute a quorum of council so they can make decisions and never publicly reveal what was done.

At some point in the future, a majority of council could take those powers away from that Commission with a simple vote. Then, they would at least have to verbally and on the record notify the public if they hired or fired someone when they graveled the public meeting back open. Regarding personnel matters, they still would not have to reveal what actions brought about the high turnover rate in the town’s police department.

Last night, during the Executive Session, Councilmember Beth Spires Sturkie was the only member of council that was opposed to handing the hiring and firing of police department personnel over to the Public Safety Commission.

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