Sheriff of the Year discusses recent national acclaim
A Q&A with Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott on recent national and state honors
In June, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was named National Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriff’s Association. A month later, he was awarded South Carolina Sheriff of the Year 2021 by the S.C. Sheriff’s Association. The reasons are myriad: Everything from high-tech innovations within his near-900 employee Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD) to robust community outreach efforts and so much more.
Lott’s RCSD is one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the Palmetto State, and for the past four years, it was one of six regularly featured law enforcement agencies on A&E’s top-rated TV series, LIVE PD. The department was in fact the only agency to have appeared on the program throughout all seasons from 2016 through its finale in 2020.
Then there are the international connections. In 2010, Lott traveled to Erbil, Iraq – at the invitation of the Iraqi government – to assist in the establishment, planning and training for the first-ever Iraqi female police academy. The academy project was an enormous success, as were the beneficial information-sharing and joint-training relationships engendered.
And there are his in-house programs like the department’s pre-PTSI (PTSD) conditioning program, which have become national models.
I recently say down with Lott for to discuss RCSD, his national award and what has led to his success.
W. Thomas Smith: Congratulations on being named National Sheriff of the Year. With over 3,000 sheriff's offices nationwide, there were surely hundreds of sheriffs in the running for this lofty award. And many of whom would have been equally deserving. What do you attribute your success to both personally and professionally for this singular honor?
Sheriff Lott: First of all, you’re exactly right, there are many sheriffs across the U.S. who are just as deserving of such an award, and I personally know many of them both nationally and right here in South Carolina.
One of our key successes as a department has been in the realm of community relations and community outreach. This has been something on which we have placed a tremendous amount of focus and effort since I was first elected sheriff 25 years ago. And it has paid off far beyond anyone’s ability to measure it other than sheer experience in the field.
The fact is, we are a deep South, central South Carolina county with a very large metropolitan area and many racially diverse communities throughout. But we are all friends. We don’t simply enforce the law here, though that is certainly part of our job, but we consider ourselves to be "peace officers" who develop lasting friendships with those whom we serve. As a result, the citizens in the communities we serve, trust us and we trust them. They know we’re not going anywhere. Our friendships are for keeps. And this is not some feel-good platitude. It’s real. It’s proven. We’re all working together for a common goal, which is to keep our communities safe and protect our children, our elderly loved ones and each another. They unquestionably know that, and they believe in us because of that.
These community relationships also serve us in terms of vital information gathering and intelligence processing. People tend to forget, but we are still operating in the era of the global terrorist threat. There is the threat of domestic and international terrorism, so we need to always keep our heads on a swivel. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s true. And we need our friends in the communities we serve to have a greater sense of situational awareness and to not be afraid of sharing information with us that we can process into accurate actionable intelligence. And it’s not simply in the realm of counterterrorism, it’s counter-gang activity and counter-crime overall, regardless of criminal activity. Regardless of threat.
Smith: Give us a specific example of how this community outreach has benefitted you and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
Lott: The first that comes to mind is May 2020 when the peaceful protesting in the wake of national racial unrest stemming from the killing of George Floyd boiled over into rioting here in Columbia, the state capital. We determined, again through solid intelligence, that the rioters – most of whom were not from here – were not those who had been peacefully protesting, but agitators and criminal opportunists. With the public fully behind us, the rioting was quickly quashed. We are NOT Portland [Oregon], nor will we ever be. And that speaks to who we are as a people and a community.
Smith: You’ve been referred to as "one of the most creatively innovative, bridge-building law enforcement leaders in the nation, even internationally." Governor Henry McMaster and Medal of Honor recipient Major Gen. James E. Livingston, a much-revered Marine Corps general-officer also from the Palmetto State, have both stated that RCSDis "highly regarded throughout the state, country, even internationally," and that you have been referred to as "America's law enforcement agency." High praise to be sure. Why?
Lott: Much of it comes from our relational success on the ground throughout our communities, also the model programs we have implemented in-house, the sterling reputation we’ve worked hard to earn over the years, even some of the work we’ve done overseas.
For example, in 2010 I was invited by the Iraqi government to help that war-torn country establish its first-ever female police academy. They had heard about our successes here in central S.C., so they reached out to us through the U.S. State Department. That led to one of my senior deputies and I traveling to Erbil, Iraq to do just that: Help them. And we did. We helped them accomplish their goals of standing up the academy. And one of the collateral benefits of that was that we developed a new relationship with the Iraqi security forces, and we continue those strong relationships as well as an officer exchange program with Iraq, as we do with several other foreign law enforcement agencies, as well as U.S. military forces and domestic law enforcement agencies here at home.
Smith: I understand this includes regular training with the FBI?
Lott: Yes, and that brings us back to the counterterrorism piece and always being prepared for any and every eventuality. We have one of the best trained, best equipped, best led Special Response Teams (SWAT teams) and Crisis Management Teams (hostage negotiators) in the nation, and we regularly conduct training with other police SWAT teams and the FBI’s regional teams. We’ve also trained with U.S. Army Special Forces operators and U.S. Navy SEALs. Not to mention that many of our very skilled SRT operators are formerly deployed Marines and Army infantrymen, veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So we are talking about very smart guys with cool heads. In fact, all of our deputies – every man and woman in the department, sworn and non-sworn – are the very best that you will find anywhere in the world.
There’s also our Criminal Investigations Division and our crime lab, which is constantly innovating, updating and employing the latest technologies enabling us to serve our communities and – when asked – other law enforcement agencies.
Smith: You have a reputation of taking really good care of your deputies. Is this something that sets you apart?
Lott: I wouldn’t say it sets us apart. I believe any good law enforcement leader is going to take care of his or her men and women. I also see those of us here at the Richland County Sheriff’s Department as family. I know all 800-plus of them by name. I love them and care about them. They know that, and they know I am available for every single one of them, and they know we have numerous programs in place to ensure they are well taken care of.
One of those programs is our Critical Incident and PTSI (PTSD) Awareness program, which covers everything from stress reactions (physical, cognitive, and emotional) to PTSI myths, causes, coping strategies to departmental policies and procedures. We were the first in the nation to establish such a program for our deputies. I say, first, because unlike other PTSD awareness programs, ours began as a unique program in that our deputies received the conditioning training on the front-end before any of them ever hit the street. This has since become a model and, as I understand, agencies around the country have implemented pre-PTSD programs like ours.
Smith: What does being named National Sheriff of Year mean to you personally?
Lott: First, it is a huge honor personally. Secondly, it is not about me. It is an honor shared with every single employee of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and every single citizen living and working within the communities we serve. Thirdly, this is something that all South Carolinians may be proud of because this is the first time that a sheriff from the Palmetto State has received this national honor. So it’s much more than simply Leon Lott. This is for all of us.