FOR 20 YEARS, RICHLAND County voters have trusted Leon Lott to keep them safe. That trust has been well placed.
Mr. Lott, who faces opposition in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Richland County sheriff, leads one of South Carolina’s most advanced law enforcement agencies. With one major exception, he has shown good judgment and leadership throughout his tenure, especially during crises.
His opponent in Tuesday’s primary, James Flowers, is a former homeland security planner and criminal investigator with the State Law Enforcement Division. Mr. Flowers, a former University of South Carolina football player, was most recently a senior special agent at SLED before he resigned to run for sheriff.
The winner faces no Republican opposition in the fall.
The campaign has been spirited at times, especially during a forum this week. But Mr. Flowers has not made a convincing case that Sheriff Lott should be replaced. Richland County voters should stick with their sheriff and his proven record.
Mr. Lott, an Aiken native, joined the Richland County Sheriff’s Department as a patrol officer in 1975. He has been a criminal investigator, captain of the department’s narcotics unit and watch commander.
After becoming St. Matthews police chief in 1993, Mr. Lott was elected Richland County sheriff in 1996.
Since then, Mr. Lott’s department has been innovative in its efforts to both prevent and solve crimes. He was the first local law enforcement official to identify youth gangs as a problem confronting the Midlands. In 2001, he created a full-time unit to fight gangs in Richland County.
In 2004, Richland County became the first sheriff’s department in South Carolina to create its own DNA lab. Mr. Lott says the lab allows his department to solve crimes much faster than if it had to rely on the State Law Enforcement Division.
Under Mr. Lott, the sheriff’s department created several diversionary programs aimed at keeping young people at-risk of landing in jail outside of the criminal justice system.
Sheriff Lott responded appropriately last fall when the controversial video of a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School made local and national news. The video showed the officer, a Richland County sheriff’s deputy, forcefully removing a female student from a desk during class.
Mr. Lott fired the deputy within days of the video’s release, saying the officer violated policy and could never again be effective within the department. But the sheriff also took steps to prevent another occurrence, working with school districts to clearly define the roles of school resource officers and reinforcing expectations of the officers.
We also were impressed with Mr. Lott’s leadership during last fall’s historic flooding in the Midlands. A night curfew was needed to keep residents safe and to prevent looting, but deputies were measured while enforcing it.
Sixteen years ago, the sheriff created a citizens advisory panel to review nearly all aspects of the sheriff’s department. Mr. Lott believes the panel helps him build ties with the community and provides key citizen oversight of the department.
Our biggest disagreement with Sheriff Lott concerns the investigation of shootings that involve his deputies.
Mr. Lott believes those investigations can be best handled by his own department. He argues that his department is well qualified to handle those investigations, pointing out that major law enforcement agencies across the country investigate their own officer-involved shootings.
The sheriff says those investigations are reviewed by his citizens panel. The results are turned over to the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s office, which decides whether to prosecute.
As we have said before, Sheriff Lott is a trusted public official. We don’t question his department’s ability to investigate crimes. But given the controversy surrounding police shootings across the nation, the sheriff’s department should want to remove any doubt about a conflict of interest.
While we continue to urge the sheriff to change that practice, we remain impressed overall with his work and his department. Mr. Lott has built an effective, professional agency.
Richland County voters should not take that for granted. We encourage them to hire Mr. Lott for another four years.