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Politics and law enforcement don't mix

Posted: May 22, 2012 3:03 p.m.
Updated: May 23, 2012 5:00 a.m.

I, along with most other Kershaw County residents, was surprised and stunned by Kershaw County Council’s recent idea to shift control of the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office from the voters to themselves. I thought the idea alone was ridiculous. Then some councilmen raised the bar from ridiculous to ludicrous with explanations that their intent was to “…take the politics out of county law enforcement…” What?!  Take the politics out of county law enforcement by having county politicians run it? And make no mistake, whatever is said now about control of the proposed county police department, it would be county council. It’s hard to believe that there is no other motive, given the hostility shown by some council members toward the sheriff and the indifference shown to residents of the county, particularly because this scheme was hatched in secret, discussed and perfected in secret and even drafted into ordinance form in secret. Men, this is public business! Maybe there are no motives except to “fix” whatever political interference you think is rampant now in county law enforcement, but why the secrecy? Maybe there is no motive to hand control of county law enforcement to a chosen individual, but why the secrecy?

Some of you councilmen said, at various times and in various ways, that many citizens in Camden are upset about a decision of the current sheriff to shift deputies from school resource officer posts in Camden city schools.  The sheriff says he needs to put those deputies on the road to increase the presence of law enforcement in the county. I defer to the judgment of the sheriff. Seems, anyway, like a flimsy reason to disrupt law enforcement activities in our county.

Some of you said, at various times and in various ways, that your reasons for this scheme included the sheriff’s decision to arrest drunken teenagers at Cup events and the attending “bad” publicity. Is it probable then that, under your administration, enforcement of such laws would have a low priority? Have any of you gentlemen ever been to “College Park” at Springdale Race Course during Cup events? If so, tell us why you believe it’s alright for teenagers, in view of hundreds of people, to openly flaunt state alcohol laws; to engage in open sexual activity; fight, curse, urinate, defecate, throw up, stagger and fall; spill beer, wine, liquor on others; and drink themselves into a stupor at an event in our community, sponsored by our community and some of its institutions. If the sponsors don’t want the law enforced at the expense of ticket sales, shame on them. If you, councilmen, don’t believe the law should be enforced, shame on you. This could be an early indication of the tone of county law enforcement under your direction. Besides, the real “bad publicity” will come when a kid is killed, seriously injured or drinks themselves to death in College Park. Happens other places; could happen here, and almost has.

I don’t fault you for your attempts to make positive changes in the quality of our lives. I do fault you, though, for poor judgment, borne out of ignorance and lack of experience about the effects of turning law enforcement over to elected politicians who each have different and demanding constituencies. Law enforcement is a quality-of-life issue; the quality of our law enforcement and the courage of its leaders determine to an extent the quality of our communities and our lives. In this case, councilmen, you’re wrong to try to replace with your own the judgment, courage, experience, training and education of our elected sheriff. Though I sincerely respect your willingness to serve in a sometimes thankless job, and to look out for our best interests, we didn’t elect you to run the county law enforcement program; we elected a sheriff.

And, finally, I’ve heard some of you point out how similar plans to yours have made life better in other areas. I have worked in law enforcement departments at the municipal, county and state levels in South Carolina for over 37 years. I have worked and networked with law enforcement professionals in various levels of law enforcement agencies in nearly every state in the nation. I have worked in, and with, city police departments whose officers were cowed and ineffective, the departments full of conflict and unprofessionalism, poor morale and even corruption, the results of political interference. I have worked in, and with, county sheriffs’ departments whose officers’ effectiveness and professionalism was seriously impaired by political interference in personnel decisions, policies and procedures and priorities because of political interference and law enforcement ignorance on the part of politicians who wanted to control things. I worked in state agencies and saw agency leaders indicted, fired and pilloried by the press and the public because of substantive involvement in department affairs by politicians.

Based on what I have experienced and seen and heard, I tell you with some authority that the old phrase uttered by police officers for many decades is true: “Politics and law enforcement don’t mix.” No matter what face you try to put on it, we were headed for a county police department run by a seven-member committee, a truly weak system of administration. I know; for 16 years I led a state law enforcement unit under the direction of a committee of three commissioners, none of whom had law enforcement experience and none of whom knew anything about law enforcement administration, but most of whom wanted a hand in controlling our activities, urging us toward some disastrous situations, many times because of outside political pressure. I spent much of my working effort fighting that system from inside.

Whatever your true motives -- and I hear things -- your secret approach, your determination to keep the public in the dark while you fomented the plan and your absurd reasons for supporting it tells me all I need to know about the purity of your intentions. You emphasize that control of the new county police department would rest with the county administrator. He works directly for you and would endure mighty and threatening pressure from your “committee of seven bosses” to change this or that area of focus, policy, procedure, hiring decision, training program, equipment purchase, uniform color, patrol car appearance, and any other detail about the department that you, or your successor, has a “better” idea about. 

Councilman, we elected a sheriff. Based on my state-level law enforcement experiences of knowing and having worked with almost every sheriff in South Carolina, knowing something about how every sheriff’s department in South Carolina operated, and knowing something about how the law should be enforced, I know that our sheriff is doing a superior law enforcement job. Most of us county residents do. We don’t expect you to like it, but we do expect you to support him, and us. If you do that, we’ll support you. Some of you say that this matter will be brought up again. I hope not.

Thank you, councilmen, for the time and effort you expend in our interests.

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