J. KARL MILLER: It is lonely at the top

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:17 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"Command is lonely" is a quotation attributed to Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State, during the first half of the George W. Bush presidency.

While Powell gets credit for the quote, that emotion is shared by everyone who has experienced the responsibility of command. The loneliness is shared more deeply by those who must command subordinates placed in harm's way — particularly military, law enforcement and firefighting organizations.

The responsibility of command is absolute, but one may delegate authority to one's subordinates. In reality, the mark of the true leader is one who is confident in the competence and judgment of those junior in rank to exercise authority in the name of the commander.

Nevertheless, responsibility may never be delegated. Subordinates may recommend, adapt, deviate or even disobey — but responsibility remains with the person who made the decision to act. It is an axiom of leadership that the burden of liability for the success or failure of any mission rests on the shoulders of the commander.

It is precisely for this reason that I share a certain empathy for Columbia Chief of Police Ken Burton who has been the subject of criticism by elements in the community, the Columbia Fraternal Order of Police Union and reports of low morale in the police ranks. I have neither spoken with Chief Burton nor with any in the police department, but as an interested Columbia resident, I have something to offer.

The first "crisis" faced by Burton was the Feb. 11, 2010, SWAT raid, which involved the presence of a child, the fatal shooting of a family dog and the unfavorable nationwide publicity from a distributed cellphone video. Burton moved rapidly and decisively to reorganize the leadership and the functions of Columbia's SWAT.

The Police Union and some citizens' groups took issue with the chief for overriding a departmental internal inquiry that cleared Officer Rob Sanders of use of excessive force in the Aug. 15 injury of a prisoner. Critics allege ignoring the inquiry undermined department morale but — the inquiry merely recommends — the commander decides.

The city hired a consulting firm to conduct an organizational review of the Columbia Police Department, the findings and recommendations completed in February. The review was far from favorable, citing low morale, "toxicity" of supervisory culture and poor communication throughout the department among its 12 findings. There were 14 recommendations.

After reading the review and its findings and recommendations, I am far from favorably impressed. As one who has done such reviews, I found it to be self-serving, long on conjecture and short on substance — conclusions based on presumptive evidence. To Burton's credit, he accepted without complaint the findings and recommendations.

Anyone who has conducted one of these fact finding reviews realizes some members of an organization are prone to bellyache and complain, particularly when faced with new methods of operation. I suspect the consultants were predisposed to expect poor morale and highlighted every inkling of it — I also suspect that on a scale of one to 10, the real mean is less than five.

The two issues that I have found the most divisive are the Citizens Police Review Board and the second guessing by the Police Union. Conceived for whatever reason, the review board has proven to be an albatross to the Police Department — ineffective leadership, misinterpreting its mission and lack of comprehension of the stress faced by on-duty police officers have caused friction at the top and contributed to morale problems in the field.

As an interested citizen, it is my conclusion that Chief Burton's performance as chief of police has been more than adequate. It is unfortunate he doesn't command the full support of the Fraternal Order of Police — though that might be tempered by time.

Finally, there are hints and rumors of dissatisfaction among and within the command staff. If that is in fact true, those officers need to perform an inner "soul search," and, if they cannot offer their complete support to the command, they should have the good grace to terminate their employment.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at

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David Rosman April 4, 2012 | 2:12 p.m.

Good column Karl. You're right, great minds...

(Report Comment)
frank christian April 4, 2012 | 4:26 p.m.

"Nice work David. It would appear that this week, column wise, is one of great minds thinking alike."

"Good column Karl. You're right, great minds..."

Should we deem this a "love fest", or a Rodney King attempt at "why can't we all just get along?"

(Report Comment)

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