WHETHER in business or in government, many agreements touted as a win-win aren’t as good as advertised. But we suspect the arrangement calling for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and the Columbia Police Department to work more closely to bolster crime fighting countywide will live up to its billing.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott signed a pact last week that gives city police officers jurisdiction in unincorporated areas of the county; sheriff’s deputies already are able to operate inside the city.
Under this unique arrangement, Chief Scott and his officers will provide critical backup for sheriff’s deputies, while Sheriff Lott and his department will train city police in multiple areas, including victim’s services, criminal investigations and fugitive apprehension. The arrangement also should improve safety and end confusion about who has jurisdiction in “doughnut holes,” unincorporated areas that are surrounded on all sides by the city.
While Sheriff Lott and Chief Scott are appropriately focused on improving public safety and security, their agreement strikes a positive blow for city-county cooperation. The two correctly state that this is not a merger, but it’s the next best thing. And there is no reason it shouldn’t work out: The agreement to work together to enhance a critical public service would be rivaled only by the more than two-decade-old joint Columbia-Richland fire agreement, which recently was extended another five years.
As Mr. Lott and Mr. Scott noted, the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department never have had anything approaching this kind of arrangement before. Unfortunately, turf concerns and personality conflicts prevented such cooperation.
But things changed when city officials named Mr. Scott police chief in 2010. Mr. Scott and Mr. Lott are close allies: Mr. Scott worked at the Sherriff’s Department for years, including a stint as the sheriff’s chief deputy, and two of his top commanders are former sheriff’s deputies. It was no surprise to learn that the two law enforcement agencies began working on the jurisdictional agreement right after Chief Scott joined the city.
Prior to Chief Scott’s hiring, Columbia City Council had considered asking Sheriff Lott to run the Police Department, which was in disarray. The idea was sold as a way to consolidate service, enhance investigations and improve response times. When that proposal fell through, the council hired Mr. Scott.
Although there were some questions that needed to be answered, we were intrigued by the notion of Mr. Lott overseeing the Police Department. It would have increased accountability and, just as important, provided an excellent opportunity to test the waters for a possible merger. While it might not be their intent to broker a merger, the arrangement agreed to by Sheriff Lott and Chief Scott is a step in the right direction.
As we’ve noted before, the cleanest, most effective way to unify the police and sheriff’s departments would be to consolidate the two governments and have just one law enforcement agency. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, for political and legal reasons.
And for all we know, simply trying to merge the two departments could be as difficult, particularly when politicians get involved. That’s all the more reason to appreciate Mr. Lott’s and Mr. Scott’s willingness to use their friendship, mutual respect and professional knowledge in the best interest of all this county’s citizens.