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Advisory Board Provides Community Review of Sheriff’s Department

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, the Roman poet Juvenal asked. “Who watches the watchmen?” For the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the answer since 2001 has been the Citizen Advisory Board.

Sheriff Leon Lott created the board to review the actions taken by him, his deputies, and the department as a whole. “The whole purpose of this board is to insure the Richland County Sheriff’s Department provides fair and impartial law enforcement service to all of our citizens and all of our employees,” Lott said. “We can only be successful if we have the support and trust of the community.”

With recent controversies over the use of force by police, and attacks on police officers, the board’s role has become even more important. In addition to reviewing actions taken by the department, the board’s 26 members serve as communicators, going back to their neighborhoods and relaying what they hear at their meetings.

“We cover all races,” said board member Julio Soto-Perez, and a look around the room at a board meeting proves him right. “We give our own opinions. We don’t go by what they say; we go by what we believe.”

Serving on the board has “been eye-opening because of the different opinions you get from all over the county,” said board member John Hinks. “I can’t imagine any law enforcement agency that wouldn’t benefit from a  program like this.”

At the board’s July meeting, members reviewed the case of a recently fired deputy. No sheriff’s department personnel were in the room for the discussion, and the board members were given full access to the deputy’s record with the department and the detailed investigation which led to his dismissal (Note: the deputy’s dismissal was for an incident which was not violent and did not involve interaction with the public. No laws were broken and no criminal charges filed. This reporter was privy to the review, but will not share details in order to protect the now-former deputy’s identity).

The board’s discussion of the incident was lively and open, with all free to speak their minds. It ended in this case with unanimous agreement to support Lott’s decision to fire the deputy. If the board had disagreed, Lott and his leadership team would have taken their position into account and reviewed the decision.

“It always impacts citizens one way or another,” said current board Chair Russel Anderson of the cases the board reviews. “For the last few years, it’s been most important.”

The board also receives updates on what the department is doing. In July, Deputy Chief Chris Cowan spoke to them about the ongoing effort to get body cameras for deputies. Cowan said deputies want the cameras as much as the public wants them to have them. The issue is paying for them.

“I think you’d be hard pressed to find an officer who doesn’t think body cameras are a good thing,” Cowan said. “They protect citizens and the community, but they also protect officers.”

The South Carolina legislature passed a law making it mandatory for all law enforcement agencies to acquire the cameras, but did not provide sufficient funding. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department received a one-time disbursement of $132,000 for the cameras, but Cowan said the program would cost $825,000 the first year and $635,000 per year in years two through five.

“The issue is not the equipment itself,” Cowan explained. “The issue is the storage of the data.” Lott had requested a study of the costs of implementing cameras two years ago, and the department’s leadership team is currently working with County Council and the federal government to try to acquire funding.

“We need these cameras,” Cowan said. “The sheriff is big on accountability.”

The board questioned Cowan closely about the costs and other issues with the cameras, asking how Richland County could avoid the nightmares experienced in other places. They also offered suggestions, and promised to spread the word to their neighbors about the discussions and decisions.

More information on the Citizen Advisory Board is available here.

Pictured: The Citizen Advisory Board at its July meeting (photo by Allen Wallace)

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