Candidates for Richland County sheriff faced off in a heated debate Tuesday on race relations, a climbing homicide rate and Sheriff Leon Lott’s 20 years in the office.
Challenger James Flowers spoke first at the forum, which was sponsored at Embassy Suites by the St. Andrews Democrats and drew close to 400 people.
“I want a department that people can be proud of, not scared of,” Flowers said.
Lott said voters have allowed him to make the sheriff’s department an international model of success.
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Moderator Cynthia Hardy of OnPoint Media launched the debate with a question about rising homicide numbers in Richland County – namely, how the candidates intend to combat that problem.
“We need to take this department back to the basics,” Flowers said, adding that every deputy should be responsible for community policing.
Lott said to stop rising crime, community members must work alongside law enforcement.
“If you read The State newspaper on Sunday, it talked about crime being up not just in Richland County, but all over the Midlands,” Lott said.
Moving from crime to race relations, Flowers said that the reason he went into law enforcement was because he and his father were profiled when he was a teenager. “That is exactly why I decided when I was 17 years old to go into law enforcement and get rid of crooked cops,” Flowers said.
Lott said to prevent profiling, he requires deputies to call in citizens’ race and age every time they stop someone.
When asked if officers should receive training on recognizing and handling people with mental illnesses, Lott responded emotionally. “I had a father who lived with mental illness his whole life,” Lott said, adding that mental illness should not be treated as a crime, and that his deputies undergo training on the subject.
Flowers also said he supports training on mental illness – but that officer safety is always paramount when dealing with anyone.
When the moderator asked about investigating officer-involved shootings, Flowers slammed the department’s policy of investigating its own shootings. All other agencies in South Carolina call in the State Law Enforcement Division to investigate.
Lott said that for the past two years, no one from the community has complained about the sheriff’s department’s investigations. Critics of the practice, he said, are outside the community – such as Gov. Nikki Haley.
To be transparent, Lott said, the sheriff’s department shares all information with its Citizens’ Advisory Council. Flowers criticized the council as a group of supporters hand-picked by Lott.
The Richland County Democratic primary is June 14. Absentee voting is already underway.