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December 12, 2017 11:20:49 AM
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Columbus Police Chief Oscar Lewis submitted a letter to city leaders Monday announcing his intent to retire at the end of the month.
His last duty day will be Dec. 28.
Mayor Robert Smith confirmed to The Dispatch he received Lewis' letter Monday afternoon. He plans to submit it to the city council for consideration during its next meeting Dec. 19 and recommend Assistant Chief Fred Shelton to serve as interim chief.
He said he didn't want to discuss whether the city would consider an internal hire for the permanent post or seek outside candidates until after the council meeting.
"I might have one recommendation and the council may have another," Smith said. "I don't want to put the cart before the horse."
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin said Lewis sent him and the other councilmen a text message Monday evening indicating his retirement. Gavin would not comment further on the chief's pending departure.
Lewis has served as chief for almost two years and has 24 years of law enforcement experience, including 20 years as a Columbus police officer from 1994 to 2014. He served a short stint in Waynesboro before returning to lead CPD in January 2016.
"We appreciate the service Chief Lewis has rendered to the city during his time here," Smith said Monday.
Lewis replaced former chief Tony Carleton, who left the position in fall 2015 amid an investigation into former officer Canyon Boykin shooting and killing Ricky Ball. Boykin, who shot Ball after Ball fled a traffic stop, was fired and later indicted for manslaughter.
Lewis' leadership came under scrutiny almost exactly a year into his tenure, when he told a Dispatch reporter during a January press conference the city's crime issues were a sign of biblical End Times prophecy -- a proclamation that spurred the city council to hire Memphis-based consultant K.B. Turner to evaluate the police department. His tenure was also marred by severe roster depletion -- which at its point left CPD 23 officers short -- the department has only recently remedied.
Turner, when presenting his findings to the council in August, harshly criticized Lewis as an inadequate leader for the police department and recommended he be removed as chief. Instead, the mayor placed Lewis on a five-month improvement plan subject to a monthly review -- a process set to be either completed or renewed in January.
On Monday, however, Smith insisted Lewis was not retiring under duress.
"This has nothing to do with his review process," Smith said. "I had no idea he would give me a retirement letter (Monday)."
Lewis did not return a call seeking comment.
In his letter, he commended his officers and thanked the community for the opportunity to serve.
"This has been a great experience for me, and I pray I have served you well," the letter reads. "I could not have done it without the help of citizens, community leaders and pastors."
Lewis is asking for his unused leave to be applied toward his retirement; the opportunity to purchase his service weapon; to keep his badge and name tag; and for a plaque or shadowbox commemorating his years of service with CPD.
Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones offered a measured review of Lewis' service as chief.
"I think Oscar is a great guy, and I think he's done a fair job with what he had to work with," Jones said. "I wish him well in his retirement."
As far as replacing Lewis, Jones said he would support Shelton as interim and would even consider him for the permanent post.
Shelton served as interim chief after Carleton's departure and was interviewed as a finalist for the permanent spot before Lewis was hired.
"We really have to discuss as a council whether we want to make (Shelton) the permanent chief before we go and spend a bunch of money on a search," Jones said. "I have no problem with him being interim chief, and if he can be interim chief, I think he can be chief.
"If he does become chief, though, we've got to make sure we get a really good assistant chief who can take the helm if something ever happens to Fred," he added.
One of Lewis' staunchest supporters on the council, Ward 2's Joseph Mickens, told The Dispatch he supports a search effort for an outside candidate to become the next chief.
"We've got enough insiders in the department already," Mickens said. "... We need to bring in somebody with some fresh eyes who can see things differently."
Mickens said he was surprised to learn Lewis was retiring.
"Everybody knew he was under pressure, but with that job, you're going to be under pressure no matter who is in the position," Mickens said. "But things happen. It was his decision, he made it and I don't believe anybody made it for him. Now, we just have to move forward."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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