Pickens police chief resigns

PICKENS — An overflow crowd of around 200 people spilled out of Pickens City Hall last Thursday evening, where council chambers were standing room only, to wait for the results of a special called meeting between Pickens city council members and Shelia Crawford, president of the Pickens County Chapter of the NAACP.
“We are here in search of the whole truth, because the community deserves the whole truth,” said Crawford.
The truth residents of the Pickens County community were looking to uncover centered on former chief of police Tommy Ellenburg and his use of the N-word in the presence of multiple Pickens police officers and in relationship to the two African-American elected councilmen who serve as members of the city of Pickens’ governing body.
Also brought up for discussion was whether or not Ellenburg could continue to be effective in the office of Pickens police chief following his admission that he directed his use of the N-word and other racial slurs toward council members Fletcher Perry and Carlton Holley, as well as the community in general.
Pickens Mayor David Owens supported Ellenburg and said that he was of the opinion that Ellenburg could still be effective in his role as chief of police.
“Look at chief’s record over the past 23 years,” Owens said. “He has admitted to using racial slurs and he has apologized. We don’t condone the use of the N-word or other racial remarks. Morale in the police department is fine. I don’t think anything has changed. They know now that with a zero-tolerance policy they shouldn’t be using it at all.”
When asked how the Ellenburg incident would affect the Pickens community, councilman Tommy Stephens said “I don’t think it will have any effect myself.”
“I am most definitely concerned,” said councilman Patrick Lark. “For this to tarnish our reputation as a welcoming community is very disheartening.”
The meeting between the city of Pickens and the NAACP came at the end of Ellenburg’s 15-day unpaid suspension from the police department. With Ellenburg’s return to work in the immediate future, Crawford, Owens and Pickens city council members discussed the best way to move forward.
“We’ve all been friends for years,” Owens said. “We all grew up here. This is my eighth year as mayor, and we’ve never run across this problem before. I’ve never seen it in my 11 years on council or with the sheriff’s office. We need to learn from this experience. We put the proper procedures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It just doesn’t happen here that often.”
Councilman Fletcher Perry, one of the two African-American councilmen towards whom the racial slurs were addressed, said, “For me personally, it is embarrassing to know the statement made by the chief. It is unprofessional. It is degrading, and it should have never been used.
“The police chief position should carry a higher standard of professionalism, because he carries a badge and his motto is to protect and to serve,” he said. “Talking about it won’t stop anyone from saying it, but it took this right here to have a dialogue. I want the city to move forward, but it is time to take action and do things that will send a message that this will not be tolerated. I don’t think a 15-day suspension is sufficient.”
At the close of the meeting, Crawford commended councilmen Perry and Carlton Holley for staying the course and not resigning in the wake of events.
“It is a difficult pill to swallow,” she said. “The chief used the N-word. We can all agree on that. He admitted that he did. Because of his position, once is too many times. The chief sets the standard for the entire department. If he is allowed to use the N-word, his officers will think it is acceptable.”
“We are concerned about his effectiveness as chief. If you the council allow him to remain as chief,” said Crawford, “it sends the message throughout this state and nation that the governing body of this city approves of racial discrimination.”
Following the public portion of the meeting, council adjourned to executive session, during which time Ellenburg came before council to tender his resignation.
Owens said that Ellenburg “knew the matter wouldn’t die real easy. He turned in his badge and his gun, apologized several times and handed us a letter of resignation.”
Pickens city council voted to accept his resignation effective immediately in a 3-2 vote that stipulated the city will pay his general leave balance and give him insurance coverage for up to eight months. Perry, Holley and Lark voted to accept the resignation. Owens and Stephens opposed. Council members Patti Welborn and Jason Cassell were absent from the meeting.
Owens said that Ellenburg’s resignation was completely unexpected.
“I thought we worked past this,” he said. “He has been one of, if not the best police chief for the past 23 years. Which one of us hasn’t made a mistake? I am disappointed in the way this ended.”
City adminstrator Katherine Brackett was concerned that Ellenburg’s resignation would negatively impact other officers in the department.
“This is all new to me,” she said. “I want to meet with the police department. I wouldn’t be surprised if other officers resign before the week is over.”
As of press time, Brackett could not be reached to comment on whether or not any other officers had resigned as a result of Ellenburg leaving.
“The N-word should not be in the mindset of the police chief, for what is in the heart will come out,” said Crawford. “Ellenburg resigning was the right thing to do. The NAACP and the African-American community were not attacking him personally. We were looking at the office that he held. It is a matter of professionalism. Discrimination of any kind cannot be tolerated.”
Assistant chief Rodney Gregory will take over as acting chief until a permanent replacement is found. Brackett said that the city would allow things to settle before beginning the search for a new police chief.
SLED is conducting a preliminary inquiry regarding statements allegedly made by Ellenburg. Deputy director Richard E. Hunton, Jr. said, “It wouldn’t be appropriate to comment further regarding these allegations.”