Civilian group helps guide direction of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department

The Citizens Advisory Council has been meeting quarterly for a quarter century

By W. Thomas Smith Jr.

Soon after Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was sworn into office in January 1997, one of the first focused efforts of his administration was the creation of a broad-based citizens group comprised of business leaders, pastors, retired and former military leaders and otherwise-community leaders who would regularly meet, discuss law enforcement issues, and make recommendations to Lott and his Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD). In what would become known as the CITIZENS ADVISORY COUNCIL, the group was and is part of Lott’s overall community focused policing, which has since become the hallmark of his tenure for the past 25 years.

“Credit goes to Dr. Lonnie Randolph who put the idea in my head years ago, and credit to all of you for making it work,” said Lott while making introductory remarks at the Citizens Advisory Council’s fourth quarter meeting, Saturday, Oct. 15, at RCSD’s Region 2 substation in northeast Columbia.

Randolph, a retired optometrist and past-president of the South Carolina Branch of the NAACP, is considered something of “the grand old man” of the Citizens Advisory Council, a 20-26-member group – 10 in attendance on Oct. 15 – including men and women from all walks of life: Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, some in their 20s, and others like Randolph who are retired seniors.

“There are other similar groups now, nationwide,” said Lott. “But you all are and have been the model for the rest of the country. You all are part of RCSD. You are literally written into our policies and procedures. In fact, the Citizens Advisory Council is probably one of the most important things I’ve done.”

The establishment of the Citizens Advisory Council is also why in the wake of the George Floyd killing in May 2020 and the ensuing protests and rioting which swept the nation from coast-to-coast, law enforcement agencies began a reactive rush to form like-groups. For many it seemed too little, too late. Not for RCSD.

Columbia experienced a brief but contained episode of multi-block violence in late May of that year, but the riots were quickly and decisively quashed. Largely initiated by out-of-state agitators or what Lott referred to as “criminal opportunists,” the rioting ended not only because of the stellar coordination-of-effort between various law enforcement agencies largely led by RCSD; but it was also because the community itself would have no part in the violence.

“That in itself speaks to the value of what we have with our Citizens Advisory Council,” said Lott. “This is something we’ve had in place for years – we’ve been working this piece of community outreach for a long time – so in terms of community, we didn’t find ourselves in a reactive situation in May 2020, whereas other metropolitan cities did.”

Citizens Advisory Councilmember Perry Bradley, founding director of Building Better Communities, said: “It is critical that the community has a voice, and we have that voice through the Citizens Advisory Council.”

Not only a voice, but a direct hand in RCSD’s decision-making processes: For instance, in addition to meeting, opining on issues, and making recommendations to Sheriff Lott, the Citizens Advisory Council serves on the hiring board which helps makes determinations as to whether or not a candidate for deputy sheriff makes the initial cut.

“This too is key,” said Bradley.

As with previous quarterly meetings, the Oct. 15 meeting began with Lott’s remarks, who shared with the council a few of the new technologies being employed by RCSD without divulging sensitive information related to those technologies. The Sheriff also discussed the popularity of REELZ’ new hit TV series, ON PATROL: LIVE and RCSD’s regular participation in the show. He discussed the recent “report of shots fired” hoax at Blythewood High School wherein deputies responded in record time. And he discussed his ongoing frustration with criminals being caught and then released back into the community where they continue to commit crimes.

“This catch and release problem is neither a Democrat nor a Republican issue,” said Lott. “This is everybody’s problem, and I’m going to keep talking about it until we get it fixed.”

Following his remarks and recognition of everyone present, Lott departed the gathering in order that discussions might be held privately with Deputy Chief Roxana Meetze serving as RCSD’s liaison to the council.

A video was shown of an unruly defendant in court and how several deputies responded to the situation. Councilmembers led by Chairwoman Debra Moses then held an open discussion on what they had seen in the video, freely expressing their opinions as to the perceived effectiveness or lack thereof of the on-scene deputies’ response. The discussion included what seemed effective, how the situation might have been handled differently, as well as similar challenges faced by deputies.

Aside from the hiring board and regular meetings, among the officially listed responsibilities of the Citizens Advisory Council are –

• Review citizens’ complaints against deputies and/or employees of RCSD.

• Review disciplinary actions against deputies and/or employees of RCSD.

• Review internal policies and procedures of RCSD.

The Citizens Advisory Council examines each case to determine if the council believes the department’s actions are justified. If the council determines the department’s actions are not justified, RCSD’s Internal Affairs will be requested to revisit the case.

“We are not just a quarterly group,” said Bradley. “If there is something hot that needs to be discussed, the Sheriff will call a special meeting within 24 hours.”

One of the younger councilmembers, former MISS BENEDICT COLLEGE Nadia J. Muhammad, said: “Regular and special meetings, the hiring board, and the diversity of all ages and of all communities, are what make us a truly unique organization.”

Jaehoon Choe, a councilmember and an IT consultant at the University of South Carolina, agrees. “Sheriff Lott is much more proactive than reactive in his thinking and approach to things,” said Choe. “That’s why we have the Citizens Advisory Council, and I think it speaks to our mission.”

Choe added: “We receive both confidential and little-known public Information from the Sheriff’s Department. We closely guard the confidential information, and we make sure the important public information is received by all the sub-communities within our broader community.”

Confidential information might include forthcoming, new, and existing technologies albeit with limited details. Public information might include open-source particulars within the purview of terrorist threats, gang violence, and other criminal activity as well as key pieces of pending legislation related to law enforcement impacting Richland County. Public information-sharing and transparency have been emblematic of RCSD since Lott assumed office in 1997.

Printed copies of the minutes from two previous Citizens Advisory Council meetings – one held in April and one in July – outlined discussions covering everything from ongoing cases to gang activity to RCSD training to body cameras and so much more.

Barring any unforeseen emergency meetings, the next Citizens Advisory Council meeting will be held in January 2023. Chairwoman Moses will be stepping down though continuing to serve on the council. The incoming chairman is Wilbert Lewis. Bradley will serve as vice chair.

– Pictured are Sheriff Leon Lott and Citizens Advisory Council Chairwoman Debra Moses.

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