Opioids, prisoners using illegal cell phones in prisons, violence and other crime-related issues were on the agenda Monday morning when U.S. Attorney General William Barr slipped into Columbia and met with several dozen of South Carolina’s state, federal and local top cops at the USC School of Law.
The purpose of the private, unannounced breakfast meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was as much to foster good communications about major crime-related issues as it was to boost morale among chiefs from various law enforcement agencies, which ranged in size from rural Clinton and Greer departments to the Columbia Police Department and the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.
“Just the fact that the attorney general of the United States was coming to talk with state and local law enforcement — that’s huge for for morale among our profession,” said State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who attended the breakfast chat.
“The attorney general took time and went all the way around the table and heard from every chief and sheriff that was there,” Keel said.
In all, some 35 law officers from around the state attended, including S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson. Breakfast included bacon, eggs, muffins, hash browns, coffee and water, but “for some reason” no grits, one participant noted.
Sherri Lydon, U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, whose office prosecutes federal crimes in the state, said one purpose of Barr’s visit was “to show local law enforcement that he’s got their back.”
One topic that came up was a federal-state initiative dubbed “Project Safe Neighborhoods,” a violent crime-reduction strategy aimed at targeting the roughly “5% of our population that are responsible for 90% of our serious crime,” Lydon said.
“We are determined to make historic change with our violent crime rate,” Lydon said.
Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook, like Keel, said the focus on “the people who are causing the problems” — an approach that includes police going out and talking to violent criminals and stressing that the police are looking at them — is paying dividends.
“The fact that Attorney General Barr came here is a big deal,” Holbrook said. “You just don’t see that every day.“
Stirling said he thanked Barr for the Justice Department’s support in targeting illegal cell phone use in state prisons — a phenomenon that allows incarcerated inmates to continue committing crimes via long distance while in prison.
Stirling also said he told Barr he appreciated the help of the FBI and federal prosecutors in several recent crackdowns involving illegal cell phone use and corrupt corrections officers and that “our U.S. attorney, Sherri Lydon, has been great to work with.”
Other topics that came up were gang-related violence, meth and cocaine trafficking, crime in rural areas and controversies surrounding the use of advanced technologies in law enforcement.
State Attorney General Wilson said the meeting was important. “The most important thing that we do is protect the public, and the best way to do that is through constant communication with policy makers at all levels of government. It was great for me as state attorney general to hear the thoughts and concerns of law enforcement leaders from the local, state and federal level as well as Attorney General Barr’s comments.”
After the law school, Barr visited the Columbia headquarters of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where he met various federal prosecutors and other lawyers and was briefed on “Operation Brace Yourself,” one of the nation’s largest health care fraud investigations. It originated in South Carolina and involved hundreds of millions in fraudulent charges being made to government insurance programs.
Other law officers at Monday’s law school session included Aiken Department of Public Safety Chief Charles Barranco, Beaufort Police Chief Matthew Clancy, Lexington Police Chief Terrence Green, U.S. Marshall Tommy Griffin, Greer Police Chief Matt Hamby, Florence Police Chief Allen Heidler, Lexington Sheriff Jay Koon, Clinton Police Chief Socrates Ledda and USC Police Chief Chris Wuchenich. USC Law School Dean Robert Wilcox also attended the meeting.