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Lugoff, Elgin residents come out to hear sheriff

Posted: February 23, 2012 5:04 p.m.
Updated: February 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Occasionally, they gasped. Sometimes they laughed. On a few occasions, they applauded.

More than 200 people filled up most of a Lugoff-Elgin Middle School multi-purpose room to hear Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews speak and ask questions. A sign outside said the room could hold up to 620 people. Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) staff said they put out enough seats for 400 people. The crowd filled up about two-thirds of those seats by the time the program began at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“I’m glad you came,” Matthews told the audience as he began. “It’s obvious you’re concerned enough about our county to come out tonight.”

The evening consisted of Matthews and several members of his command staff taking about an hour to update residents on -- as the sheriff put it -- the “state of the sheriff’s office.” Matthews then spent another half-hour reading questions submitted in writing and answering them.

“When I came into office, we didn’t have enough vests for our officers. I’m now happy to say that for the first time in the history of the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office, every deputy has a bullet-resistant vest. Assaults on police officers is at an all-time high in this country, and we have these vests thanks to the donations of the good citizens of this county,” Matthews said.

He said that after taking office more than a year ago, he “stepped up” all training, including what he said was three times the firearms training for all deputies.

“We want to make sure that if they have to fire their weapon, they hit the right person,” he said.

In addition, Matthews said, all uniformed deputies receive sobriety traffic stop training and emergency vehicle operations training. He said since instituting the driving training, property and liability claims against the KCSO have dropped from $237,000 and $221,000 in 2009 and 2010, respectively, to $41,000 in 2011.

“We’re also increasing investigators’ training in several areas. Unfortunately, one of those areas is increased training for conducting forensic examinations of children of sex crimes,” Matthews said, but then added one piece of good news. “For the first time ever, we have a deputy in a world-class polygraph school at Fort Jackson.”

Workers compensation claims are also down, he said, from $85,000 in 2009 to $37,000 2010 and then $1,000 in 2011.

“When claims go down, premiums go down, and that saves taxpayers money. We’re not going to eliminate all accidents -- everyone gets into accidents -- but because of this training, accidents are way down,” Matthews said.

In the meantime, however, he said the maintenance of the aging fleet of patrol cars is “skyrocketing.” Luckily, he said, Kershaw County Council has agreed to institute a new purchasing schedule so that older cars are rotated out of the fleet as new cars are purchased. The city of Camden has used a staggered lease-purchase schedule for many years.

Matthews said one of his main goals is better customer service.

“I expect our officers and staff to treat members of the public with respect and courtesy,” the sheriff said. “I have terminated three employees for being ‘over-the-top’ rude.”

He also urged citizens to file complaints against officers if they feel the need.

“We respond to all complaints against deputies,” Matthews said, adding that they are handled by an internal affairs team headed by Capt. Chris Phillips, head of the KCSO investigative unit. “We’ve also instituted putting cameras in our patrol cars. More often than not, they exonerate our officers. We don’t have enough of them, though, and they keep everybody honest. And if it doesn’t exonerate an officer, we take care of that, too.”

Matthews also touched on his victims advocate unit, leaving most of that discussion to Phillips, and the KCSO narcotics unit.

“While I was still campaigning, I came home one evening to find a Richland County deputy in my driveway. I thought, ‘Uh, oh, what I have done?’ It turned out to be a deputy named Kirk Willis. He told me if I was elected, he and his partner wanted to come work for me. The papers he had in his hand turned out to be their resumes,” Matthews said. “They came with unbelievable accolades for aggressive, but lawful behavior.”

The sheriff said the four-man team has been responsible for serving 468 people with warrants for drug violations, taking down six methamphetamine labs and more. Many of those arrests, he said, were the result of citizen complaints.

Matthews talked about how he has worked with the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office to convince judges to revoke repeat drug offenders’ bonds.

“I’ve had bonding agents tell me their clients are moving to Richland County because we’re making it too hot for them in Kershaw County. I told (Richland County Sheriff) Leon Lott I was going to send as many drug dealers his way as I could,” Matthews said to a round of applause and laughter. “We won’t make all drugs disappear from Kershaw County, but we can make it more difficult for them.”

The sheriff mentioned the narcotics unit’s work in Elgin’s “Dixonville” community behind Blaney Elementary School.

“There are lots of people with small kids who don’t want to raise them up with the constant drug deals going on. We’re not going to let up,” Matthews said.

At one point during his discussion, Matthews said that sometimes law enforcement needs to stir up a neighborhood to see the “cockroaches scurry out.”

Several members of that community were present and said the community is not called Dixonville. One of the questions handed up to Matthews at the end of the meeting asked him if he thought his use of the term “cockroaches” was racist.

“It’s not,” Matthew said, explaining he used the term to describe all criminals. “Let me tell you something. I have a daughter who is married to a black man … I love him like my own son. I have a grandchild who is half-black. ‘Cockroaches’ is not a reflection on you, it’s a reflection on them (criminals).”

Matthews moved on to speak of his traffic/patrol division. He said patrol deputies answered 42,941 calls for service in 2011, a 21 percent increase over 2010.

That’s with only five or six men on shift,” Matthews said, explaining that Lancaster County has twice as many deputies covering roughly the same number of calls. “I’m not happy with our response times, but there’s very little we can do about it.”

That is, he said, because of the economy and a tight county budget.

“We are staffed way, way, way below the national average, so our calls get backed up. I know some areas of the county rarely see a deputy,” he said.

As for driving under the influence, or DUI, enforcement, Matthews said he would put his new traffic enforcement unit up against any other in the state. He said his most recent hire for that team was Florence County’s No. 1 interdiction officer.

“These officers are hand-picked. They know how to deal with people, professionally, courteously -- they are outstanding. Handing out tickets is a political liability, but with the number of fatalities we had in 2010, we were No. 1, and No. 8 for high-speed fatalities,” Matthews said.

The difference in 2011? Matthews said it was due to the 76 DUI-related tickets his unit issued.

“That’s 76 more than the year before and 76 more than the year before that,” he said.

He then turned to talking about checkpoints. Matthews may have been responding to a video tape of former Kershaw County Republican Party Co-Chair Jeff Mattox and current Elgin Town Councilman Larry Risvold speaking to a group in Cayce two weeks ago. On the tape, Mattox and Risvold accuse Matthews of creating a “police state” by engaging in “24/7” traffic checkpoints, infringing on citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights protecting them from unreasonable search and seizures.

“We don’t do checkpoints -- the South Carolina Highway Patrol does. We help them when asked and, at most, I send one to three deputies. This is about once a month and it’s so we remain eligible for a grant,” Matthews said, a grant that helps pay the deputies for the additional work. “We do not do them 24/7 period, dot.”

But that was not the end of it.

Mattox attended Tuesday’s meeting and handed up one of the written questions for Matthews to answer later in the meeting.

“No, I don’t think we’re violating the Fourth Amendment. I think we follow the law. We are guided by the courts. If we don’t follow the law, then we’re in trouble. It’s just not accurate,” Matthews said of Mattox’s accusation.

KCSO Capt. Ed Corey followed Matthews’ initial presentation with additional information about the patrol shifts and how they work. Each of the four regular patrol shifts and the traffic enforcement unit consist of one lieutenant, a corporal and four deputies. The traffic corporal and one of the unit’s deputies are currently being paid through a DUI grant, Corey said. The remainder of the patrol division is made up of a training sergeant; the school resource officer program, with one corporal and 10 deputies; and the civil/courthouse division with two deputies, five constables and two civilian employees.

Corey said all patrol deputies are now required to obtain the emergency vehicle operation and sobriety traffic stop training, as well as training on how to operate Breathalyzer and radar equipment. Corey also said that, beginning the first week of April, deputies would undergo active school shooter training to prepare them for such an emergency -- one, he noted, has never happened in Kershaw County.

Matthews then prepared to introduce Phillips for a discussion of the criminal investigations unit. Matthews said that at any given time, investigators may have 100 open cases.

“But we understand that for every victim of a crime … this is the most important thing that has happened to you, maybe in your whole life,” Matthews said. “Our victims advocates will keep you advised of what is going on.”

Phillips elicited a few gasps from the crowd when he noted that Kershaw County’s jump in population during the last decade has stretched the KCSO thin. He said there is approximately one deputy for every 10,000 people in living in the county, and one investigator covering 100 square miles each of crime. Kershaw County is approximately 740 square miles in size.

“In 2011, there were nine murders. Our investigators solved eight of them within 48 hours,” Phllips said to a round of applause. “In one of those cases, all of our investigators stayed up for 36 hours -- that’s 36 hours away from their homes and families.”

He said investigators are now assisting in verifying sex offenders’ whereabouts. If an offender is found not to be living at the address they are registered at, Phillips said they are arrested and put in jail. He mentioned child neglect cases, including one in Elgin where a child went missing for 24 hours and ended with the parents being jailed for unlawful neglect.

The audience applauded again when Phillips praised Lt. Steve Knafelc for his continued investigation and prosecution of sex crimes perpetrated against child victims. He also got a few more gasps when he revealed that Deputy Tick Wilson, the KCSO’s sole warrant officer, drove more than 40,000 miles to serve more than 1,200 warrants, including several out of state last year.

Phillips also talked about the victims advocate unit, which consists of two full-time employees. Those two employees, he said, provide 24/7 coverage for crime victims. They are trained to assist victims of violent crimes, including rape; family members of murder victims; and the victims of automobile collisions. KCSO victims advocates also work with the county coroner’s office and the S.C. Highway Patrol.

Phillips ended his time by mentioning some of the narcotics statistics, including seizing more than $700,000 worth of drugs in 2011.

Lt. Danny Templar discussed one of the evening’s main themes: citizen cooperation. Templar’s top example: neighborhood watch programs. He said there are nine in the county, with three more in the process of being formed.

“As a result of one of these programs, we’ve made three arrests,” Templar said. “There’s the ‘theory of the broken window.’ If a neighborhood looks dilapidated, crime will come in. But if people take care of their property … and each other, crime will drop."

Matthews returned to the podium and said he believes his deputies, investigators, staff and command officers are doing “an excellent job considering our situation.”

He said the office needs more deputies, more technology and more citizen involvement.

“I can’t address problems if I don’t know about them,” he said.

Matthews then began answering the audience’s questions, starting with another one about traffic checkpoints.

“I don’t advocate the use of checkpoints,” Matthews said again. “They’re good to a point. Do I believe you’re giving up your rights at checkpoints? No, I don’t believe you are. Narcotics checkpoints were ruled unconstitutional, so we don’t do them.”

In response to a question about revenue generated by traffic stops on I-20, Matthews said that money goes to pay for the traffic enforcement unit’s operations.

“It’s not just to generate revenue,” he said.

Matthews agreed that some jurisdictions engage in what he called “petty” ticketing. Fines in Kershaw County, he said, are merely a byproduct of enforcing the law.

“We’re not going to write you a ticket for not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, or not using your turn signal,” Matthews said. “Now, we will pull you over for an infraction. We are required by law to at least give you a warning and to get your sex, race and age. But if we were in it just to make money, we wouldn’t have written 2,000 warning (citations) in 2011.”

In response to another question, he also said his deputies do write tickets for aggressive or dangerous driving.

“I have a friend who came to me and said he’d gotten a ticket. I asked him how fast he was going, and he said 96. I told him I wouldn’t dismiss it. I tell my friends not to go there -- ‘just drive like normal people,’” he said.

Matthews said he would like to conduct elderly citizen checks.

“That’s a great idea,” he said in response to a question. “I wish we could do that. I try to visit our (nursing) homes, but our deputies don’t have the time.”

Matthews -- a former U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) Drug Enforcement Administration officer -- called the idea of having local law officers enforce immigration laws a “fiasco.”

“We’re sitting back. I want to wait and see what happens. DOJ came down here and gave me a song and dance. I told them I worked for them for 22 years and now they tell me they’re not going to do anything?” he said.

In response to other questions, Matthews said he continues to require physical fitness standards for his deputies; advocates concealed weapons permits training while acknowledging it is not for everyone; still hopes for the end of “Chinese overtime” for his deputies; urged residents not to leave valuables in their vehicles; touched on DUI and other case backlogs; and said everyone needs to vigilant.

“I’m not immune from crime. I can be a victim, too,” Matthews said, explaining how several months ago, a man who turned out to be a convicted sex offender was caught peeking in his home’s windows. “I’m not saying you have to be nosy, just concerned.”

Matthews also answered a criticism that his seemingly constant appearances in the media only serve to show off what is wrong in Kershaw County.

“I’m not making the county look bad … but I am showing that we’re doing something about it.”

Tuesday’s was the first of a series of three Town Hall meetings for Matthews and the KCSO. Other meetings are planned for Bethune and other areas of the county but have not yet been announced.nty but have not yet been announced.

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