After a rough and tumble couple of years as Richland County sheriff, Leon Lott is seeking a sixth term, facing a challenger for the first time in eight years.
Lott has twice tangled publicly with the governor, been the focus of criticism for investigating his own deputies and withstood the glare of the national spotlight when one of his officers was filmed manhandling a disruptive high school student.
At the same time, the homicide rate has been climbing, and gun and gang violence, escalating – all as scrutiny of police mounts.
Former State Law Enforcement Division agent James Flowers is angling to knock Lott out Tuesday of the office Lott has held for 20 years – and from the state’s largest sheriff’s department, where Lott has worked for 41 years.
Both men are Democrats and there is no Republican challenger in the fall.
At its core, Flowers’ campaign is based on offering a fresh face on a candidate with little administrative experience instead of a tested and occasionally bruised veteran with a knack for grabbing headlines.
WHO THEY ARE
Flowers, 43, said he knew in high school that he wanted to go into law enforcement. His moment of clarity came one night on a rural Georgia road.
He and his dad were driving home in a sporty Pontiac Sunbird convertible after taking Flowers’ sister to college. A deputy whipped his cruiser around and pulled them over.
“That single traffic stop changed my life,” Flowers said. “Me and my dad got profiled.”
Flowers’ eyes still flash with resentment over the way the deputy talked to and treated his father, a Norfolk Southern railroad company employee who was and remains Flowers’ hero. “I’m 17. I’m impressionable,” Flowers recalls. “The story still pisses me off when I tell it,” he said, pausing to control his emotions.
The only explanation the deputy offered as he tossed the license and registration into his father’s lap was that he pulled the car because the fog lights were too bright.
“I’ve always been the guy who had to fight the bully,” said the 6-foot-2, now 300-pound former Gamecock defensive end. “I’ve never been able to sit back and watch injustice.”
Flowers accepted a scholarship in 1991 to play football at the University of South Carolina, where he received a degree in criminal justice. He later took a job at the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services while now-Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin was its director. They had met in college.
Flowers joined SLED in 2005 and left last year to challenge Lott. He held a range of positions, including investigator of officer-involved shootings. In October, he launched his first run for elected office, a door-to-door grassroots operation.
Lott, 62, is finishing his fifth term. If re-elected, he said he plans to run again. “I’ve demonstrated I can lead this department. I still love every minute of it.”
He worked his way through the ranks except for a four-year hiatus after a former sheriff fired him. Lott, a native of Aiken, then took a job as police chief in the Calhoun County town of St. Matthews to get experience as an administrator. He returned to defeat his ex-boss, Allen Sloan, in 1996.
Lott has not faced a serious opponent in each of his four consecutive races. In 2008, he beat his challenger, an African-American, in the Democratic primary by taking 81 percent of the vote.
Lott has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s in criminal justice, both from USC.
He has built an agency with a forensic lab that’s internationally accredited, an arsenal of high-tech and military-style equipment, an in-house citizen review panel to watchdog officer misconduct and a range of court-diversion programs for children who might be headed for trouble with the law.
Officer-involved shootings have been a focal point in this election for one reason – the sheriff’s department is the only local agency in South Carolina that investigates its own shootings rather than allow SLED to do them.
Flowers supports the way SLED investigates police officers, even though media accounts have questioned their credibility, including allowing police time to collect their thoughts before providing official accounts of a shooting.
Most recently, a series in The Washington Post has challenged whether some S.C. cases were mishandled.
The Post reported that during questioning under oath by an defense attorney, Flowers said that he didn’t see a need to go back and review a 2008 officer-involved shooting that killed a Kershaw County woman – which he investigated – before presenting it to prosecutors. The attorney pointed out that the officers said they saw either a muzzle flash or smoke from a rifle they said the woman pointed at them. It turned out to be a BB gun, which does not produce a flash.
The newspaper also challenged Flowers’ thoroughness before signing off on his report. Flowers told the defense attorney that he did not read all files in the SLED investigation – such as those detailing fingerprint and firearms data. He said it was sufficient to get a synopsis of each file from agents who compiled them.
In an interview with The State newspaper, Flowers defended his handling of the case, and said it met SLED’s standard of quality.
Flowers also criticized a 2007 shooting by a Richland County deputy that he investigated for SLED.
He told The State this week that 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson took the evidence Flowers compiled and found the deputy did not violate the law. Flowers told the newspaper the evidence supported at least a manslaughter charge.
But a Jan. 11, 2011, letter from the solicitor’s office to Flowers shows that the office of then-chief prosecutor Barney Giese cleared the deputy. Johnson was sworn into that position the next day.
Johnson joined the sheriff’s department in 2002 and moved up to become Lott’s No. 2 deputy in 2008 before being elected solicitor.
“For him to get the details wrong on a shooting that he investigated shows how reckless and lazy he is,” Johnson told the newspaper.
Lott argues his department does what many large police agencies do. He said county residents have not objected to his in-house investigations, mostly because of the trust he has built with them. Further, the department’s Citizens’ Advisory Council provides scrutiny and transparency, he said.
Despite criticism of SLED’s investigations, Flowers said SLED oversight is still the way to go.
“You cannot call yourself transparent when you investigate yourself,” Flowers said.
SPRING VALLEY HIGH SCHOOL
In October, a school resource officer was caught on video yanking a disruptive student at Spring Valley High School from her seat and slinging her across the room. Two days later, Lott fired the deputy.
Flowers said the sheriff acted too slowly in dumping deputy Ben Fields. “Within 60 seconds, I would have fired the deputy,” Flowers said of seeing the student-shot video of the encounter.
Lott counters that he returned from Chicago to review the findings of his internal affairs unit before taking action. The incident also was reviewed by the agency’s citizens’ review panel, he said.
“What a true leader does is gather all the facts before you make a decision,” Lott said.
MANPOWER AND COST-CUTTING
The sheriff’s department has 528 deputies who are sworn officers, including 113 plainclothes investigators, Lott said. Civilian employees and part-timers complete a staff of 815 personnel.
Flowers wants to double or triple the number of deputies on patrol. He said that can be accomplished without a hiring spree or a tax increase.
He proposes to shrink the command staff, which he said is bloated, eliminate the helicopter and airplanes and slash special programs designed to keep teenagers out of trouble.
Flowers said Lott’s juvenile diversion programs “hurt, harm and humiliate” teens.
“What I want to do,” the challenger said, “is partner with existing public and private programs so that I can use my resources at the sheriff’s department to keep people safe.”
Lott said the programs were requested by anguished parents, and cited a youth arbitration program as having a 92 percent success rate.
“You could eliminate everything we do here and put everyone on the road,” Lott responded. “So when parents call up here and ask for help, we’ll tell them, ‘No, I won’t do that?’”
Reach Flanagan at (803) 771-8305; Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
▪ 43, born in Augusta, Ga.
▪ Started at S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services in 1997
▪ The State Law Enforcement Division, 2005-15
▪ First time running for elected office
▪ 62, born in Aiken
▪ Started at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in 1975
▪ Elected sheriff in 1996
▪ Seeking a sixth, four-year term
SNAPSHOT OF THE RICHLAND COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT
▪ $43.2 million budget
▪ 815 employees; 415 are deputies in uniform, 113 are plainclothes investigators, 39 are members of the command staff. The rest are civilian employees, part-timers and reserve deputies who are volunteers.
▪ 499 employees are white; 209 are African-Americans; 33 are Hispanic or Asian. Tally does not include 74 reserve officers who are not paid.
▪ 5 divisions that include uniform patrols, criminal investigations, special teams, special projects and professional standards.
SOURCE: Richland County Sheriff’s Department
James Flowers proposes to:
▪ Be proactive about preventing crime
▪ Bring in outside review of all internal investigations that rise to possible criminal conduct, including officer-involved shootings
▪ Move away from the department’s internal youth programs to instead partner with outside programs
Leon Lott proposes to:
▪ Continue advancing the department’s technology and its forensic science
▪ Partner more with other police agencies to continue addressing youth and gun violence
▪ Strengthen neighborhood crime watch groups