February 21, 2018 11:17:48 AM
An impromptu prayer circle, 16 members strong, assembled Tuesday evening in the hallway of the Municipal Complex, just outside the courtroom where the city council meets.
Inside, the Columbus City Council was preparing to enter executive session. Among the prayer circle were former Columbus Police Department community relations officer Rhonda Sanders and her Jackson-based attorney Francis Springer, both of whom were preparing to fight Sanders' transfer to patrol duty before the council in a closed hearing.
Sanders, however, and the group that showed up in force to support her, left disappointed less than an hour later as the council opted to support Chief Fred Shelton's decision to reassign her.
"It was definitely a difficult decision," Ward 4 Councilman Fred Jackson told The Dispatch after the executive session vote was publicly announced. "No doubt Rhonda would be good for the community (as community relations officer) because she's done a great job for the city. But (Shelton) is the chief, and as a council we can't sit back and micromanage him."
Sanders, often sitting tearfully in the hallway while she awaited the council's decision, declined to comment after she heard the vote. Her attorney likewise said it was too soon to comment publicly on Sanders' next planned legal steps.
In January, less than two weeks after he took over as chief, Shelton abruptly reassigned Sanders -- who had served as community relations officer for about five years -- to patrol duty. Days later, he issued Sanders a written reprimand for confirming her change in job status on the record to The Dispatch.
As community relations officer, Sanders served as a liaison between the department and the citizens, coordinating fundraisers for nonprofits and helping organize neighborhood watch groups, among other things.
Shelton, who since his hire has said his entire department would be more heavily involved in community policing efforts, has assigned some of Sanders' former duties to law enforcement veteran Rick Jones, whom CPD hired in February following his retirement as Lowndes County jail administrator.
While Shelton has not commented on the record specifically about Sanders' reassignment, he has told The Dispatch he is reorganizing the department to become more "efficient, effective and responsive."
Sanders had been a vocal supporter of embattled former CPD Chief Oscar Lewis, who retired at the end of 2017. Lewis, during his two-year tenure as chief, faced frequent scrutiny for his handling of a severe officer shortage and officer discipline, prompting the council to hire a police consultant to study the department after he told a Dispatch reporter during a press conference the city's crime problems were signs of "End Times" prophecy.
The consultant later recommended the council remove Lewis as chief, and it instead kept Lewis on an improvement plan until his retirement.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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