Lott, Matthews: Cooperating instead of competing key to fighting crime

Guest ColumnistsApril 6, 2014 

— The phone call on a hot afternoon in August was a turning point. Richland County deputies had discovered a lead on Gabbie Swainson, a teenager missing from her home. It was less than 10 miles from Gabbie’s house, but it was across the county line in Kershaw County, and so the deputies couldn’t just go charging in.

In South Carolina there are places where this situation could have posed a problem and hindered bringing closure to Gabbie’s family. You see, for as long as we can remember, some top law-enforcement officials have engaged in turf battles. They don’t work well with others and even refuse to help each other to the point of banishing officers from each other’s jurisdictions. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons agencies don’t get along, but when you’re in the law-enforcement business, not getting along gives the criminals an edge.

Neither of us was a sheriff when we met. We both started out in local law enforcement in the Midlands in the 1970s. We were both narcs. Sheriff Matthews joined the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 1979, and our paths separated. When Sheriff Matthews returned to Columbia in 1995, we had the opportunity to join forces in the fight against drugs. The Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the DEA drug task force worked together to put drug dealers in prison.

We haven’t always agreed on everything, and we both have strong leadership styles, but we agree that doing whatever is best for the communities we serve will always prevail for us. Because at the end of the day, we know that together we are stronger.

So back in August, when Richland County investigators said their lead on finding Gabbie was across the county line in Kershaw County, there was no question what would happen: With a simple phone call, the two of us would immediately agree to work together to pursue that lead. It was refreshing to have cooperation in a case that eventually broke our hearts when we found Gabbie’s body in Kershaw County.

We want the public to understand the value of law-enforcement cooperation and to know that the adage is true: United we stand, divided we fall.

The reasons are simple: When law enforcement cooperates, criminals lose the value of crossing county lines to “escape.” Smaller agencies benefit from the resources of bigger agencies such as SLED, FBI, DEA or larger sheriff’s departments. When agencies cooperate, solving the crime becomes the goal instead of who gets the glory or the credit.

In short, when agencies cooperate, the public is safer. Crime victims are better served, the community as a whole is better served.

Rank-and-file officers generally support cooperation, but frequently agency leaders block cooperative efforts. Indeed, it’s difficult to break the cycle of non-cooperation between law enforcement agencies. But it certainly can be done.

Progress is being made here in the Midlands and across the state as agencies adopt modern and professional law-enforcement standards. But those standards have to be supported by the leaders and bought into by their staff. All of the leaders have to be strong enough to call each other when problems arise and to work through the issues. This is what the public deserves and demands.

Citizens should encourage their law-enforcement leaders to cooperate. The Gabbie Swainson investigation is just one in a long list of cases on which we have worked and will work together. We are committed to cooperating. We are committed to serving the public. And we are committed to fighting crime with every resource at our disposal. It’s the only way to keep our communities safe and to continue to improve the quality of life for everyone.

Mr. Lott is Richland County sheriff; Mr. Matthews is Kershaw County sheriff. Contact them at sheriff@rcsd.net or kcso@kershaw.sc.gov.

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