An agency of historic firsts

How the Richland County Sheriff’s Department continues to lead from the front

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

I’ve frequently written about specific historic FIRSTS achieved by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) in terms of law enforcement, community outreach, security and protection of those serving within our department: Everything from our pre-PTSD conditioning program (the FIRST training curriculum of its kind in the nation) to Sheriff Leon Lott’s helping establish the FIRST female police academy in Iraq during the final days of the war.

RCSD’s FIRSTS have been exceptional to say the least, and they are seemingly without end.

In 2016 for instance, RCSD was among the FIRST agencies nationwide to be featured on A&E’s hit television series LIVE PD, and we were the only agency to be regularly featured on LIVE PD every Friday and Saturday nights until the series was cancelled in 2020. Much has been written and broadcast about that. Then late last month, ON PATROL: LIVE, basically a LIVE PD redux, began airing on REELZ, and again RCSD was among the FIRST of those now regularly featured.

That’s primarily what the public sees. Here’s what they may not: In 2018, RCSD was the FIRST sheriff’s office or department nationwide to begin branding all of its marked vehicles with the words PEACE OFFICER. The branding was part of an academic study conducted by Police2Peace and New York University’s BetaGov, aimed at determining the impact of words like “peace officer” and the public’s perception of the same.

Continuing with the study, in 2020, RCSD became the FIRST law enforcement agency in the nation to retrofit approximately 500 deputy uniforms (both shirts and ballistic vests) with the words PEACE OFFICER stitched below the already existing words, DEPUTY SHERIFF.

Then on May 3, 2022, Sheriff Leon Lott made the “peace officer promise,” another FIRST and essentially a pledge to do no harm to the communities served by RCSD: Not that RCSD’s deputies had harmed anyone; on the contrary, Lott and his nearly 800 deputies – known for their culturally familial approach to and relationships with the citizens of Richland County – were simply reaffirming all of that in a pledge “to befriend and bring a tangible sense of security and harmony to those whom we have sworn to serve and protect. In this, we promise, we will.”

Since Sheriff Lott and RCSD made the promise, more than 330 law enforcement agencies and police organizations from around the country have expressed tentative though enthusiastic agreements with Police2Peace, and are in the active process leading toward official peace officer promises of their own. A few of those agencies so far include: The Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Police Department, the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, the Denver (Colorado) Sheriff’s Department, the Seattle (Washington) Police Department, and the Greenbay (Wisconsin) Police Department.

Police organizations following suit in support of the pledge include: The National Sheriff’s Association, the National Association of Women Law Enforcement Executives, the National Policing Institute, and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

That’s from among 330-plus agencies and organizations. Another 110-plus are exploring the possibility of also signing on to promise, which will also lead to a special peace officer training course enabling agency accreditation going forward.

“The numbers of agencies coming aboard are growing by the day,” says Lisa Broderick, executive director of Police2Peace.

Why does RCSD always seem to lead the way from one historic law enforcement initiative to the next? One man: Sheriff Leon Lott, the NSA’s National Sheriff of the Year 2021 and the South Carolina Sheriff of the Year 2021. Lott was also named S.C. Sheriff of the Year in 2004.

As has been previously reported, since first being elected in 1996, Lott has instilled within the department, increased focuses on community outreach, victims’ services, crisis intervention, and officer wellness. For Lott and RCSD, these programs and units developed within are not simply component-parts of the RCSD organizational structure: They are ardently embraced maxims brought to instinctive realities.

No wonder RCSD is always achieving and will continue to achieve historic national FIRSTS. It’s also why retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor, once said, “The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is America’s law enforcement agency.”

More FIRSTS to follow.

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