On the verge of starting his first full term at South Carolina’s top police agency, Mark Keel says he’s hopeful that a new state budget with more money for more officers will help him return the State Law Enforcement Division to its originally intended role: supporting local law enforcement.
“My main goal is to get us back into that role,” Keel told The Associated Press recently. “I think that’s what we got away from, and that’s what I’m trying to bring us back to.”
Tasked with investigating crimes, SLED also serves as the hub for the state’s homeland security operations. Keel took over last summer, when former U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd stepped down with several months remaining in his term. Lloyd, who had come to the agency with no law enforcement experience, has said that he approached the role from a macro level, allocating agents to work on taskforces and focusing on building big, multi-jurisdictional cases.
Keel, who spent decades at SLED before a brief stint heading up the state Department of Public Safety, says he is refocusing the agency on what he says is its legislative imperative to help local police agencies.
The Barnwell native joined SLED in 1979 and served as a helicopter pilot and hostage negotiator. He was chief of staff to retiring Chief Robert Stewart in 2008 and became interim chief when Stewart stepped down after two decades at the agency. But then-Gov. Mark Sanford tapped Lloyd to lead the agency. He was the first black to run SLED.
Sanford sent Keel to run the Department of Public Safety, whose director had resigned amid state and federal investigations after troopers were caught mistreating suspects in incidents captured on dashboard video. A trooper who was recorded using a derogatory term for blacks while pursuing a suspect was acquitted of a federal civil rights charge. Another seen hitting a suspect with his patrol car was sentenced to community service. A third trooper received probation for kicking a suspect.
Keel emphasized reforming trooper ethics and lax discipline, changing the way issues of conduct were handled and firing four troopers in his first months in office.
When he returned to SLED, Keel said the agency was under sanctions for failing to comply with standards on sharing criminal information – problems that eventually could have led other states to deny South Carolina access to their crime history databases.
“Those things were not up to par,” said Keel, adding that SLED is now free of sanctions from one group and is working to resolve its issues with the FBI Advisory Policy Council.
Keel also pledged to boost agent ranks that have dwindled over the course of several tight budget years. Keel said SLED had 340 agents when he left the agency in 2008. The number had dropped to 220 by the time he returned last summer, he said.
A budget proposal now before lawmakers would include funding for 45 more officers. Keel said his agency needs them to do its job effectively – particularly with a renewed focus on helping local agencies.
“Our calls for service have gone up significantly since I came back in July, and it’s because we’re back doing what SLED was created to do,” Keel said. “You can’t continue to cut public safety the way you cut everything else.”
Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright said that with Keel, “we now have the right person to correct the course that the State Law Enforcement Division was on before he took over.”
He added, “Chief Keel is a career law enforcement officer and I am so thankful to have a ‘cop’ to call on to assist not only the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office but sheriff’s offices and police department throughout South Carolina.”
There’s also a personnel shortage in SLED’s lab, which processes forensic evidence for police agencies that don’t have their own labs. In 2008, Keel says SLED had 120 lab technicians. He said the number is now down to 95. More than 4,500 DNA cases in the SLED lab are over a month old, and there’s a months-long backlog on violent crime cases, according to Gov. Nikki Haley’s budget proposal.
“We have to prioritize our casework,” Keel said. “Violent crimes come first.”
As the state’s top cop, Keel must also keep track of law enforcement-related bills moving through the state Legislature. On his list this session is a proposal that would allow a public agency to refuse to release to the public “information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action or criminal prosecution.”
Opponents say the bill could allow law enforcement too much latitude to decide what information is released to the public. But Keel said the measure would protect the interests of crime victims and witnesses and help ensure that defendants get fair trials.
The legislation is still pending in legislative committees.
The issue has popped up recently in state headlines. Twice this month, South Carolina judges have refused to release video from a police dashboard camera requested by the media. Keel tends to agree with the judges.
“I understand the media’s right to inform the public,” Keel said. “I end up coming down very hard on the side of justice, more so than something being made public.”