The Man at the Helm

How Chief Skip Holbrook is transforming the Columbia PD

By Sam Morton

Photography by Jeff Amberg

In most occasions, when a large city like Columbia gets a new police chief, the nice thing to say is the person has some big shoes to fill. Southerners like to be polite, even when the courtesy is somewhat undeserved. 

Before William “Skip” Holbrook took the helm at the Columbia Police Department, eight other people preceded him in the seven preceding years. To say those men all left amid controversy would be rather an understatement. From chiefs who let their family members stroll through crime scenes to one who faced accusations of a “black ops” effort to plant drugs on an assistant city manager, the Columbia Police Department faced one embarrassing scandal after another. His predecessors left in their wakes shattered morale among the troops and serious questions about the quality, and competency, of the services they provide.

And then came Skip Holbrook.

“Everybody in law enforcement circles knew about the problems going on here,” Skip says. “When people found out I was looking at the chief’s job here, a lot of them told me I was crazy to consider it.”

The chief says he, too, was wary. At the time, he was chief of police in his hometown of Huntington, W.Va. His life had come full circle, and he was challenged at work and content with the progress his department had made.

Even when the City of Columbia began its courtship, he wasn’t quite sure. It presented an opportunity worth looking at, but maybe one not worth taking. Then something changed. “I think the tipping point for me was the reception I got from the officers and the public on my first official visit. They were looking into my eyes and my soul. And I was looking into theirs.”

The decision to leave West Virginia was not one he made lightly. He had grown up in Huntington, the son of a highly respected high school football coach, who has now retired from teaching but still remains an assistant football coach at 74 years old. Skip inherited his dad’s competitive drive. He also was an athlete, playing college baseball at Marshall University.

After graduating in 1987, Skip became a police officer in Charlotte where he worked as a patrolman and as a narcotics investigator. After five years learning his craft, he accepted a position with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. There, he worked as a member of a violent crimes task force with officers from several departments, including federal, state and local agencies. He eventually worked his way up to become assistant special agent in charge of the Charlotte office.

In 2004, Skip saw an opportunity to move closer to his parents and in-laws in West Virginia, but the move would require a career change. He took a chance and joined a real estate development firm.

Once police work is in the blood, however, the urge to serve is like a tidal force. In 2007, he returned to law enforcement taking over a struggling Huntington force with a large number of vacancies and extremely low morale. 

What the Huntington Police Department found in Skip is the same thing Columbia is discovering. He was the right person at the right time. Skip is a dedicated police officer. He is a cop’s cop. Since he began leading the Columbia PD in April 2014, he’s worked to earn respect — and it is immense — from his officers, city leaders and the community.

“I attribute every bit of my success to the way I was brought up. I come from a very blessed family. My mom and dad are career educators,” the chief says.

Of the many things they taught him well is something as critical to modern day law enforcement as any piece of equipment: a sense of collaboration. “The first thing I did when I got here was call Sheriff Leon Lott. He is a consummate professional and a friend. SLED has been a tremendous help to me. I have much respect for the way they assist law enforcement.”

For the two times the police chief’s position was vacant before Skip took charge, local leaders gave copious thought to consolidating the force under the sheriff. One of those open slots even went to one of the sheriff’s department’s lead officers. But Sheriff Lott has been pleased with the city’s decision and has a close working relationship with the police department.

“Chief Holbrook has proven to be the right choice as a police chief for the City of Columbia. Our agencies work jointly on a daily basis. That’s from patrol functions to investigations,” Leon says.

The formal creation of the Midlands Gang Task Force, a collaborative effort, has proven to be very effective and successful. The task force has been able to identify 200 validated gang members — those who meet a number of specific and select criteria — and between 300 to 350 suspected gang members. 

“Chief Holbrook came in with a willingness to work together with other agencies in the Midlands. He is a man of integrity and sets a model for the men and women of CPD to follow,” Leon says.

“Because I came from the SBI, which is an assisting agency, working with other departments and agencies is just second nature to me,” Skip says. “It’s important to know your place.” Most people would call that humility. For Chief Holbrook, it’s an approach to doing business.

He says that he did not realize until he accepted the chief’s position in Huntington how valuable a police chief is to a community. He accepted that premise, and the responsibility that comes with it. Using that attitude, he turned the tide for the Huntington PD and is off to an auspicious start in Columbia.

When Skip stepped into One Justice Square, he inherited a department hemorrhaging personnel. A previous interim chief rehired some fired officers and restored demoted ones to their old ranks. There had been a recertification test-taking scandal, and the revolving door at the chief’s office set a tone of mistrust and uncertainty.

Skip ordered an assessment and developed a five-year strategic plan complete with mission and vision statements and a declaration of the department’s core values that stressed transparency and accountability.

“In the past year, we have participated with other agencies in North and South Carolina in their promotion boards. We’ve used that experience to put a comprehensive process in place. Officers will have to take a written test and an oral assessment. Then their peers from outside agencies will evaluate them on the basis of their performance history, tenure and discipline. From that, we’ll create a list to promote from,” the chief says.

The department also just published its Internal Affairs Report online, a bold move for any organization public or private. The report not only outlines complaints against officers, but it also educates the public on exactly how investigations are handled, the methodology for addressing problem conduct and the actual outcomes. 

Away from the job, Skip enjoys family: wife, Michelle, a son and a daughter. He left his oldest son at his alma mater, Marshall University, in Huntington to pursue his degree in criminal justice, which he has now received. His favorite book, (“You mean after the Bible?” he asks), is Turnaround by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. He likes to run for exercise, golf for fun and work in the yard to relax. Something most people don’t know about Skip is that he is a cigar connoisseur. “I’m a cigar fanatic. And I like jazz music. I just have an old soul.”

He’s just a regular guy; however, he takes his role as a community leader seriously. It’s quite common to see Skip at a crime scene backing up his officers while letting them do their jobs, comforting victims or reassuring neighbors. It’s a personal touch, and it’s his way.

Skip published a newspaper editorial explaining police officers have dual roles, that of a guardian and that of warrior. “First and foremost, we must act as guardians to safeguard the constitutional rights of all we are sworn to protect and serve. But when dealing with violent individuals who threaten community safety, we must be ready to employ warrior-like skills to protect themselves and others,” he wrote in The State in August 2015.

With situations escalating beyond control in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., and with open calls for people to resist, target and assassinate law enforcement officers, the question becomes how to balance having an open, inviting department with community trust and the paramount issue of officer safety. “Again it goes back to that balance between being a guardian or a warrior. The best officers are the ones who figure out how to communicate and de-escalate tense situations. Columbia Police Department is different than a lot of other agencies in the Midlands, and it’s always been ahead on community policing.”

Skip is quick to point out the other half of the community-policing concept is comprised of the people who live in Columbia. “I couldn’t be more proud of the way our citizens reacted to things lately both in state and nationally,” he says. “We already have lines of communication open, and we stay ahead of it. That’s a gift that gives back all the time, and it starts at the top. Everybody’s not a threat.”

There is power in knowledge, and Skip realizes it, a lesson he tries to pass along to all who work for him. “The better you know your community, the better you can relate and the better you communicate. You’re more likely to know who you’re dealing with, know what kinds of things are calming to them or know someone who can deal with this person.”

Community policing is reliant on shoe leather and handshakes, but Skip uses technology to his full advantage, too. His department analyzes crime data and patterns. “The dynamics of downtown are changing,” he says. As much as community policing relies on consistency, crime-fighting methods have to remain fluid. His analysts look for the times and areas of heaviest call volumes and crime types, and he deploys his officers accordingly.

Another issue of both national and local concern is the deployment of body cameras. “Right now we’re looking at cameras from four different vendors. I have 20 officers tasked with testing and evaluating the products for a number of weeks,” Skip says. “They will assess them against the criteria we have. Then we’ll decide which is the best one to purchase. We’re all in. We already have policy in place. One thing I’m particularly proud of is that I haven’t had one bit of pushback from the officers. I’m not sure that would have been the case a year ago.”

Block by block, policy by policy, officer by officer, Skip is building a first-class police department. There is something reassuring about meeting Skip Holbrook in person. An obvious leader, he is decisive and confident. But he has that something extra: enough of an “aw shucks,” Tom Sawyer complex that people can’t help wanting to pick up a brush — or a badge — and help.

One of the reasons Skip says he decided to come to Columbia is it reminded him of Charlotte in the mid-1980s. “The department was similar in size to Columbia. The area was about to boom. It had forward-looking leaders. Charlotte is a world-class city with a great police department. I have every intention of making ours the same.”

And then came Skip Holbrook. And he brought the big shoes with him.

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