By Noelle Phillips
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Seven years ago when Skip Holbrook took over the Huntington Police Department in West Virginia, he faced a big problem called Fairfield West.
Drug dealers sold crack, heroin and oxycodone at all hours of the day and night. Prostitutes slinked along the streets of the neighborhood of nearly 2,000 residents.
"It wasn't hidden at all," said the Rev. Reginald Hill, pastor of the neighborhood's Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
Parents would not let their children wait outside for school buses. The elderly were too fearful to sit on their porches, Hill said. Abandoned houses plagued every block. The community, which was home to most of the city's African-American and Hispanic residents, did not trust the police.
Bit by bit, Holbrook tackled the problem. He arrested drug dealers. He courted community support. He won federal grants. He asked federal and state authorities for help.
Neither success, nor the community's trust, came quickly, said Leon White, the neighborhood association's president. But today, Fairfield West is a changed place.
"Our neighborhood is the neighborhood it is today because of the police chief," White said.
Those are the stories Columbia city manager Teresa Wilson heard when she visited Huntington as part of her search for a new police chief. They convinced her that Holbrook was the man for the job.
On Friday, Wilson introduced Holbrook as the new Columbia Police Department chief.
Holbrook will begin his $121,500-a-year job after he is sworn in April 11.
He will move to Columbia with his wife, Michelle, a 19-year-old son, a 10-year-old daughter, a mother-in-law and a family dog, he said. A 21-year-old son will remain in Huntington, where he attends Marshall University.
"We're all in," Holbrook said.
Holbrook said he and his wife always wanted to come back to the Carolinas after beginning their adult lives in Charlotte. He called the Columbia job the "professional opportunity of a lifetime."
Columbia and its police department remind him of Charlotte when he first started working in that city, he said. Charlotte was booming, and the police department was going through changes as it adapted.
"I see us growing with our city and becoming a major, world-class police department," Holbrook said.
He enters a tough situation.
CPD's Tumultuous Past
Holbrook must find a way to bring stability to the Columbia Police Department as he becomes the ninth person to lead it since 2007.
He also must restore respect to the chief's office after most of those predecessors left amid controversy.
Most recently, interim chief Ruben Santiago resigned after a special prosecutor said he had interfered with a federal and state investigation into an alleged "black ops" scheme to plant drugs and a stolen gun in an assistant city manager's car. Santiago was not charged with a crime, but it was clear Wilson had lost confidence in his leadership.
The investigation also revealed an environment in which officers worked amid distrust and rumors. At least five lawsuits from current and former officers are pending.
Holbrook also must win the confidence of Columbia City Council, which has a long history of meddling in the police department's affairs, usually in the name of providing constituent service. On top of that, his selection is the result of a search process that was filled with conflict between
Wilson and some members of council, including Mayor Steve Benjamin.
But those who worked with Holbrook in West Virginia believe he has what it takes to survive.
"No doubt, Skip Holbrook is the real deal," said Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. "He is a fantastic police chief and, more importantly, he is a fantastic person."
Goodwin and two other people who were references on Holbrook's resume said he was well-aware of the problems in Columbia before he accepted the job. The department's reputation is known throughout law enforcement, they said.
"Columbia's story is not news to anybody," said Terry Sult, chief of the Hampton Police Department in Virginia. "Everybody in professional circles knows what is going on down there."
The key, they said, will lie with city officials and their willingness to trust him to do his job.
"His successes or failures don't depend on his capabilities but the political will of those who lead the city," Sult said.
As Goodwin put it, "Columbia needs Skip Holbrook a lot more than Skip Holbrook needs Columbia."
William Howard Holbrook, 49, grew up in Huntington. The son of a respected high school football coach, Holbrook also was an athlete. He played college baseball at Marshall University, which is in his hometown.
After graduation in 1987, Holbrook accepted a job as police officer in Charlotte, where he worked as a patrolman and as a narcotics investigator.
He left Charlotte after five years to work for the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, which is North Carolina's equivalent of SLED.
There, he worked with a multi-agency violent crimes task force with officers from federal, state and local agencies.
The potential existed for big egos to clash as various agencies tried to take credit for accomplishments, said Sult, who worked with Holbrook in Charlotte.
"The egos all come into play when you're dealing with those kinds of partnerships," Sult said. "No matter how dynamic the personalities, Skip was able to go in and bridge those gaps."
At the bureau, Holbrook worked his way up to become assistant special agent in charge of the Charlotte office.
Others who have worked with Holbrook said he always has been respected as a hard worker who earned trust among fellow officers. No one knew of vices or bad habits that could cause him problems in Columbia.
"Skip is a policeman's policeman," said Van Shaw, deputy assistant director of the North Carolina bureau who worked with Holbrook there. "He was not one who from Day One said, 'I'm on a management track.'"
Holbrook left law enforcement in 2004 to join a real estate development firm. Friends said he was offered an opportunity in a business in his hometown and decided to move closer to his and his wife's parents.
In 2007, however, law enforcement called again.
By all accounts, Holbrook took over a struggling Huntington department. The force was decimated and morale was low. Money was tight. The city's crime rate kept climbing.
And then there was the Fairfield West problem.
Fixing Fairfield West
For years, few in Fairfield West, where most of the city's minorities live, trusted the police department, White said.
Residents and officers, including former chiefs, did not get along.
White, the neighborhood president, remembers meeting Holbrook in his first weeks on the job.
An avid gardener, White was working in his yard when he noticed a man driving around and around the block. He recognized the man as the new police chief that he had seen in the local newspaper.
"I waved him down and pulled him over," White said. "I wanted him to know there was someone in this neighborhood who was glad to see him."
Those front-yard conversations became regular, White said.
When Hill, the church pastor, met Holbrook, the chief asked if he could attend church services from time to time. His face became familiar to the congregation, Hill said.
"That spoke volumes," he said.
As community relations improved, Holbrook began taking steps to clean up the neighborhood. He also courted support from federal and state prosecutors and neighboring law enforcement.
The neighborhood's problems would not be solved without creative ideas, Booth, the federal prosecutor, said. Holbrook called on his experiences in North Carolina to develop partnerships with other agencies.
The Huntington Police Department won a U.S. Department of Justice "Weed & Seed" grant, which is designed to rid neighborhoods of gangs, drugs and violent crime and to plant community development programs.
That helped, Goodwin said. But, "there still were open-air drug markets with people dealing drugs on the corners."
Huntington had become a target of drug lords who were feeding a pipeline between Columbus, Ohio, and Detroit, several people said.
"They were an army," White said. "Their soldiers kept coming. You put them in jail, and they keep coming."
Holbrook asked Goodwin and local prosecutors to join him in setting up a drug market intervention program based on one developed in High Point, N.C. They went hard at the big-time drug dealers. But the small-time street dealers and prostitutes were given an option.
The police and prosecutors built cases against them and had judges sign arrest warrants. They then were told they could go to rehab, attend school, get a job and avoid crime to stay out of jail.
The police also hauled those people into a community meeting where they faced White, Hill and others who had been terrorized by their crimes.
"We told them we were sick of them," White said.
Many accepted the second chance and are clean today, Goodwin said.
Dilapidated houses were another lingering problem.
"They were like beehives of criminal activity," Goodwin said.
The police department worked with city hall to condemn them. The West Virginia National Guard got on board to knock down the houses as part of a training exercise; 59 houses were leveled in 30 days in a four-by-eight block area, Goodwin said.
At a public event to celebrate the first demolition, a bulldozer rammed a house, and the impact forced a bedroom door to swing open. It had "sex room" painted on it, Goodwin said.
"You needed to look no further for Exhibit A as to why those houses needed to come down," Goodwin said. "It was an area of general lawlessness."
Holbrook also asked for federal help in investigating a convenience store that Goodwin described as an "ATM for drug addicts." People were selling food stamps there for cash, Goodwin said.
The investigation led to a conviction for food stamp fraud, and the government seized the building and land as part of the owner's penalty. Now, the building has been razed and the city is building a fire department in its place, Goodwin said.
"It was a real holistic approach to a problem that existed," Goodwin said of Holbrook's work to clean up Fairfield West.
Hill is thrilled with the change he sees around his church.
"You can come in our neighborhood now and the kids are playing," he said. "You can come in our neighborhood without being approached by a dealer or a prostitute. People can enjoy their porches."
White advised neighborhood leaders to work with Holbrook and embrace his ideas.
"The one thing I would say to the black community is, 'If our community would have embraced him sooner rather than later, our community would have been better sooner,'" White said. "They judged him by the past. But I tell you what, you've got a diamond."
Copyright 2014 The State
McClatchy-Tribune News Service