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The State

EXCLUSIVE: Columbia police hired chemist despite warning from sheriff’s experts, Lott says

By Clif LeBlanc

The Columbia Police Department hired a crime lab chemist in 2011, whose work is now in question, despite being told that she was not qualified, Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.

Brenda Frazier’s job performance has resulted in 746 cases she handled during 21/2 years with the police agency being reviewed by prosecutors and defense lawyers.

Police chief Skip Holbrook relieved Frazier of her drug-testing duties on Aug. 22. She resigned three days later, and the department is no longer examining drug evidence.

The lab troubles are the latest in a string of problems in the department that most recently centered on allegations of misconduct, leadership questions and high turnover in the chief’s post. Holbrook was hired in April from the Huntington, W.Va., Police Department.

Now City Council is trying to decide what to do with on-going drug cases that are being analyzed in the interim by the State Law Enforcement Division. Holbrook said his department needs the matter settled soon.

“When we’re not prepared, it gets exploited, and cases are dismissed,” Holbrook told council’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.

Richland County Sheriff Lott told The State newspaper that in late 2011, Columbia police asked forensic scientists from his nationally accredited lab to evaluate and interview three finalists for the police department job. Frazier was among the three.

On Dec. 1, 2011, the reviewers endorsed the two others as qualified for the job, Lott said. They recommended that Frazier, then known as Brenda Jenkins, not be hired, Lott said.

The police department hired her on Dec. 27, 2011, to be one of two chemists who analyze drugs. Her job application states that she has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and mathematics from S.C. State University and an online master’s in business administration and technology management from Phoenix University.

City administrators on Wednesday said that they were examining employment records and did not respond to the newspaper’s inquiry about why Frazier was hired.

After she was hired, Frazier worked with the police department’s senior chemist, Melissa Hendricks, according to briefing notes Holbrook provided to the council committee Wednesday.

“Personal differences” between the chemists arose quickly and could not be solved, the chief wrote in the notes to council that refer to a period when Randy Scott and Ruben Santiago led the police department. Hendricks resigned in June 2012, leaving the department with one chemist.

A retired head of SLED’s forensic lab began providing Frazier with training, which Frazier completed on Aug. 3. 2012, and then joined a multi-county peer review system, Holbrook wrote. Peer review is a required lab procedure that provides for ways to double-check drug evaluations, including the exact weight of a drug. The amount of a drug can determine the severity of a criminal charge.

But by February of this year – two months before Holbrook was hired – the now 53-year-old Frazier was dropped from the peer system, “due to her inability to accept criticism and resistance in conforming to the group’s methodologies,” the chief wrote.

The newspaper’s efforts Wednesday to reach Frazier were unsuccessful.

By early May, the department was advertising for a second chemist so it could return to internal peer reviews. The police department has yet to fill that position and now has a second vacancy, Holbrook said.

He learned of problems in the lab during his division-by-division inspection of the agency, Holbrook said. He asked the sheriff’s department for assistance – including a thorough study by the head of Lott’s lab, Demi Garvin. By mid-June, the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s office was asking about lab results that appeared incomplete in a pending drug case.

When Holbrook learned that Frazier miscalculated the weight of crack cocaine in a trafficking case, he closed the lab Aug. 21 and notified city manager Teresa Wilson the next day, the chief said. Wilson and Holbrook told five council members who attended Wednesday’s committee meeting that both of them are working to improve the speed of communications with council. Some members are dissatisfied that they learned of the lab troubles about the same time the issue became public.

One idea for an interim solution for the lab is to pay the sheriff’s department to evaluate drugs seized by Columbia officers.

Mayor Steve Benjamin and Councilman Cameron Runyan said they support that approach and would work to come up with the money.

But committee chairman Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman was more cautious.

“I’m not saying we need to turn this thing over to the sheriff, because that’s a slippery slope anytime,” said Newman, who has opposed putting city police officers under the control of an elected sheriff.

Wilson said she has not been part of those discussions and wants to take a close look at the cost and who would be in charge of police department evidence.

The committee asked Wilson and Holbrook to compile options in time for council’s Sept. 16 work session.

“I think I heard them say, ‘Bring back any and every option,’” she said after Wednesday’s meeting.

Holbrook is seeking to hire chemists at a salary range of $45,233 to $59,790. But he has yet to settle on the remaining three candidates. One position has been vacant since 2012 and the second, since Frazier’s departure on Aug. 25 after Holbrook closed the lab four days earlier.

The department must hire qualified chemists and not lower its standards to fill the jobs quickly, he said.

“We’ve got to raise the bar,” Holbrook said, referring to the controversy surrounding Frazier’s job performance. “We can’t deviate from the standard just to put a butt in a seat.”

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