Warren Bolton

Bolton: Despite the bad actors, many police officers deserve a pat on the back

The SC Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony on Wednesday honored those who passed away during the year 2014.
The SC Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony on Wednesday honored those who passed away during the year 2014. gmelendez@thestate.com

ONE DAY LAST November, my wife, noticeably shaken, called to tell me that Clarendon County sheriff’s deputy Holmes Nathaniel Smith Jr. had died in a tragic accident while on duty.

I had never met Deputy Smith, but she had come to know him and many other members of the department as her counseling practice took her to Manning over the years. As she told me about him, I’d learn that Deputy Smith was more than a deputy; he was a husband, a father, a son, a friend — and an all-around good guy.

So it didn’t surprise me when we arrived at the visitation at the funeral home to see an outpouring of support from fellow officers as well as the community. It was clear that he would be missed. And of course, it was clear that his wife, Tonia, and five children — and the rest of his family — would miss him most.

Deputy Smith, a 1987 graduate of Keenan High School in Columbia, earned a degree in criminal justice from S.C. State University. He worked in law enforcement for nearly 20 years; in that time, he served as a police officer for the city of Manning and a game warden for the Sumter County Department of Natural Services as well Clarendon County deputy.

Sadly, he was killed Nov. 5, after he was involved in a single-vehicle crash on U.S. 521. He was returning from a meeting with State Law Enforcement Division agents about an auto-theft investigation.

We should never forget the sacrifice Deputy Smith and countless other officers have made and continue to make on our behalf.

They’re not robots, folks. They’re real people who daily set aside their real lives with their real families to serve their communities.

At a time when law enforcement in our state and across the country has come under tremendous — and deserved — scrutiny, it’s worth taking a step back and saying “thank you” to the men and women in blue who constantly and willingly put themselves in peril for us, never knowing when their next shift will be their last.

The overwhelming majority of them are hard-working, dedicated — often underpaid — individuals, who are tremendous assets not only to the law enforcement ranks, but to their families and their communities.

I’ve been among those who’ve raised questions about law enforcement over the years, whether it’s about the current furor over black men being killed by white officers or police engaging in needless hot pursuits that endanger innocent bystanders.

But that’s not because I don’t appreciate law enforcement officers’ tireless work; I do. I have many friends who have served or continue to serve. It’s a dangerous and thankless job that many of us couldn’t do. I’m thankful that God has wired some people to be willing to raise their hand and take on this important task.

I must admit that sometimes we take them for granted, something I was reminded of this week, thanks to letters from readers as well as the annual ceremony held to remember officers who died over the past year.

When I walked into the office on Monday, I found two letters waiting for me in which the writers challenged me to give more consideration to the rigors involved with being in law enforcement. It was clear that they weren’t responding just to what I had written but to the overwhelming media attention police have been getting nationwide.

“My daughter always wanted to be in law enforcement,” one parent wrote. “She trained hard and she does a good job. I wish you would ride in a squad car a couple Saturday nights, and see what they have to deal with.”

A second writer suggested getting training myself to see what it’s like from the officers’ perspective. “Find out what it’s like to walk into a riot and know that your life is on the line, as thugs throw rocks and bottles at you.”

And then on Wednesday, there was the memorial ceremony for law enforcement officers who died in 2014, whether in the line of duty, still active with their department or retired.

During the ceremony at the Criminal Justice Academy, 136 names were read — a bell tolling for each officer, signifying the end of watch. Three of those who died last year lost their lives in the line of duty.

In addition to Deputy Smith of Clarendon County, the others were:

▪  Charleston County sheriff’s deputy Joseph Matuskovic, who was shot and killed during a disturbance call on Sept. 8. The 17-year veteran of law enforcement is survived by three children and his fiancee.

▪ Summerville patrolman Robert Blajszczak, who died six days after suffering a heart attack during a traffic stop on Oct. 26. He served with the Summerville Police Department for seven years and had previously worked for the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, the Moncks Corner Police Department and the Edisto Beach Police Department.

We can never repay these officers and their families for their dedication and sacrifice. But we must never forget their service. And we can do a better job of letting those who continue to serve and who will enter the ranks know that we appreciate them.

Even as we seek to weed out bad officers, seek better training, implement body cameras, demand changes in how officers engage the public and push for other changes, we must also reaffirm our support for law enforcement and the job we charge them to do. We must make it clear to our children and to other adults that they must respect the authority that we entrust to officers.

And officers themselves must respect and protect the awesome authority and responsibility placed in their hands. The public supports them through tax dollars that allow them to be paid, trained and outfitted with much fire power. We entrust them with immense power and authority, which we expect them to use wisely and with sound judgment. Bad decisions can be deadly, for others and for themselves.

While we rightly challenge those who make bad decisions, we too often overlook the many who go about their work dutifully, upholding a laudable standard. Even as we seek to weed out the bad officers, let’s encourage and uplift the good ones.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

Editor’s Note: After 29 years with The State, the past 18 as a member of the editorial board, Mr. Bolton is leaving the newspaper. His insight and his journalism have enriched our community.