Why the Richland County Sheriff’s Department is an ELITE law enforcement agency
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
Countless law enforcement agencies have achieved fame and notoriety over the previous 100-plus years. High-profile criminal cases have led to the renown of many, as has the sheer number of police departments, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies at every level – locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Among some of the best-known are NYPD, the FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s office, Texas Rangers, even Scotland Yard. There are many others.
Here in South Carolina, one of the best-known law enforcement agencies (LEAs), nationally and internationally, is the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD).
Founded in 1787 and led since 1997 by Sheriff Leon Lott, a veteran law enforcement officer who has served in uniform since 1975 and was first elected sheriff of Richland County in 1996, RCSD has earned its reputation as a model of professionalism not so much by the notoriousness of the criminals the department has pursued and brought to justice over the years – though there have indeed been those – but by the forward-thinking culture Lott has instilled in his RCSD over the past quarter-century and continues pressing hard today.
Things like community outreach, victims’ services, crisis intervention, and officer wellness are not simply component parts within RCSD’s culture, which could easily be attributed to other healthy and well-founded LEA’s. For RCSD, they are ardently embraced maxims brought to instinctive realities.
In 2020, the department became the first in the nation to retrofit some 500 deputy uniforms (both shirts and ballistic vests) with the words PEACE OFFICER stitched below the already existing words, DEPUTY SHERIFF.
Though the PEACE OFFICER vest-branding was the first such initiative for the nation, it was not for RCSD. In 2018, the department took part in an academic study by Police2Peace in concert with New York University’s BetaGov aimed at determining the impact of words on public perception by marking all RCSD vehicles with the words PEACE OFFICER. Other law enforcement agencies nationwide have since followed suit.
ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
“What we do day-in-and-day-out is about our unwavering commitment to relationships,” says Lott. And he has striven to instill this commitment in his 900-plus-employee RCSD. Of that 900, approximately 800 are sworn officers – everyone from a patrol deputy to a member of RCSD’s Special Response (tactical) Team.
“Caring for one another and for those beyond our reach – outside of our immediate sphere – is a huge, defining part of our culture,” Lott adds.
The relationships Lott speaks of have been realized in everything from the nation’s first-ever pre-PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury or post-traumatic stress disorder) conditioning program – the brainchild of Lott which is now being inculcated into the training curricula of LEAs across North America – to an agency bound by an unusually strong familial cohesion, units geared toward and organized around community projects, and a constant cycle of community events wherein RCSD hosts everything from basketball tournaments, fun runs, to local festivals, even pizza parties and autograph-signing events during the six years A&E’s hit television series LIVE PD was airing nationwide.
Speaking of which, Lott’s RCSD was one of the first agencies approached by A&E in 2016 before kicking off the network’s top-rated television docuseries LIVE PD in Oct. of that year.
LIVE PD AND POPULAR CULTURE
Lott appreciated the value of a LIVE PD series. RCSD was one of the “charter firsts.” And when LIVE PD ended in 2020, RCSD was the only featured LEA that had been with the program every week since its inception.
Canceled in the wake of nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Live PD was not only “the most-watched show on A&E,” but “the most-watched show on cable during prime time on Friday.” Fans loved LIVE PD and would drive clear across the United States for a chance to meet and maybe snap a selfie with or get an autograph from an RCSD deputy.
Not surprisingly, over the months following the A&E cancellation of LIVE PD, the network’s viewership plummeted to near 50 percent according to the Wall Street Journal.
Still and all, LIVE PD spoke loudly as to the popularity and the national, even worldwide, fan-support of agencies like RCSD. But it wasn’t simply RCSD’s fanbase that was cheering and continues to champion the agency.
THE RIOTING OF MAY 2020
In late May 2020, when rioting erupted in Columbia, S.C., the state’s capitol, Lott’s RCSD – at the head of 15 other agencies – quickly quashed it.
“Sheriff Lott literally saved our city,” said Bruce Brutschy, a past president of the West Columbia Police Foundation and director of the S.C. Black Belt Hall of Fame.
“We are not Portland [Oregon], nor will we ever be,” said Lott following the riots. “The agitators and criminal opportunists took what began as legal, peaceful protesting by good people to a very dark place. But we at RCSD and the other 15 agencies who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us, quickly brought our city back into the light.”
MODEL AGENCY LEADERSHIP
Lott’s leadership has also brought agencies together to form the Midlands Gang Task Force and the Midlands Fugitive Task Force, both of which merged last year to form the multi-agency Midlands Gang and Fugitive Task Force (MGFTF).
The MGFTF member agencies under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) include RCSD, the Columbia Police Department, the Irmo Police Department, the University of South Carolina Police Department, the Cayce Department of Public Safety (Police), the Forest Acres Police Department, the S.C. Department of Corrections, the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services, the Benedict College Campus Police Department, the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office (assigned Assistant Solicitor), the Columbia Housing Authority Police, and the U.S. Secret Service.
Non-MOU partners include the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the U.S. Marshal’s Office among others.
To have everyone working together and operating off of the same sheet of music is “by design,” says Lott.
Referred to as “a model agency” by several law enforcement publications and general consumer magazines; even military leaders, international police and foreign military units have recognized the “model quality” of RCSD. That model quality has been recognized in everything from RCSD’s special operations units, to its media and public information arm, to forensics and investigations – with everything from DNA, fingerprint, and ballistics labs which are considered second-to-none in the Palmetto State – to leadership development both within the department and out in the racially and ethnically diverse communities RCSD serves.
FOREIGN SERVICE AND HIGHLY BENEFICIAL EXCHANGE PROGRAMS
At least one foreign country has called on Sheriff Lott to aid in building their own LEA on the RCSD model. In 2010, Sheriff Lott was invited by the Iraqi government to help stand-up that country’s first female police academy in Iraqi Kurdistan. That project evolved into an ongoing relationship, which continues, between the leadership of Iraqi security forces and RCSD.
Today, there also are active police exchange programs between RCSD and Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and others. RCSD also conducts Special Response Team training with other police SWAT teams, the FBI’s regional teams, U.S. Army Special Forces operators and U.S. Navy SEALs. And when they are not “officially” training, RCSD deputies and other officers regularly meet for Crossfit workouts, often led by Lott who at 68 is still known as a cop with no qualms about pursuing on foot or facing off with a suspect (which he did as recently as a few short years ago).
NATIONAL SHERIFF OF THE YEAR
In June 2021, Lott was honored by the National Sheriff’s Association as the NATIONAL SHERIFF OF THE YEAR. The following month, the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association recognized him as SOUTH CAROLINA SHERIFF OF THE YEAR. It was the second time he had received the state award.
“Two such awards within the span of two months is tremendously rewarding,” said Lott. “Make no mistake, though, these two awards are not nearly as much about me as they are the department, the communities we serve, and the state.”
As if the two personal awards were not enough, last summer, Lott and RCSD were jointly presented the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) Extraordinary Employer Support Award from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The ESGR Extraordinary Employer Support Award recognizes previous recipients of the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, which RCSD received in 2013. Only 280 employers nationwide have ever received an ESGR Freedom Award since the award’s inception in 1996. All Freedom Award winners are selected from approximately 3,000-plus nominations from across the nation, annually. “As such, RCSD is the first and only recipient of the Defense Department award in South Carolina: Another first for the Palmetto State,” according to Columbia Metropolitan magazine.
AMERICA’S LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
Speaking of RCSD’s aforementioned “model quality,” Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James E. Livingston, U.S. Marine Corps, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, said, “The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is AMERICA’S LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY.” A declaration “not made lightly, but earnestly,” he added.
Retired U.S. Army Col. Kevin Shwedo, the current Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army and the executive director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles, said: “RCSD has the best command climate in the nation… Command climate [being] a combination of organizational culture established and enforced from the leadership and a desire for excellence in the ranks.”
But it’s not simply RCSD’s culture, model quality, or command climate: “It’s trust,” says Lott. “And trust is perhaps the quality we value most. Trust is the steel which reinforces the model.”
Trust is why RCSD was approached by the Florence County Sheriff’s Office and asked to take over the investigation into the fatal shooting incident in that county in October 2018 when two Florence officers lost their lives and others were wounded. That’s one of many examples. Trust is that interesting intangible that has lifted RCSD up to elite status, the best of the best among law enforcement agencies. Trust is also why Lott has been elected and re-elected seven times since 1997, winning by a landslide 71-percent in 2020. And the very faith and trust that the citizens of Richland County have continued to place in his “elite” RCSD, are why Lott says he will be running again in 2024.