COLUMBIA — When Greenville County Sheriff Steve Loftis took the podium at this summer’s meeting of sheriffs from across the state, he knew he had to say something about acting with integrity, honesty and good character.
After all, he was the second choice to be the newest president of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association. That was after the original choice, former Saluda County Sheriff Jason Booth, was indicted for misconduct. And Booth was just the latest of a half-dozen sheriffs who have found themselves in legal trouble or admitting to a serious moral failing in just over two years.
“Out of 46 sheriffs, the majority of them are doing an outstanding job. But the way I look at things, law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard, especially if you are an elected sheriff,” Loftis said this week.
The bad behavior by sheriffs in South Carolina has been wide-ranging.
Earlier this month, Booth pleaded guilty to misdemeanor misconduct in office and was sentenced to five years of probation and a $900 fine. Authorities said he used a prison inmate who was supposed to do work for taxpayers to build a party shed and ornate gate on his property. Less than two years ago, former Lee County Sheriff E.J. Melvin sat in a prison jumpsuit as a federal judge sentenced him to nearly 18 years in prison for taking kickbacks to protect drug dealers.
At least two sheriffs still on the job in South Carolina have admitted to cheating on their wives with their own employees. Laurens County Sheriff Ricky Chastain settled a lawsuit filed by a woman who said he impregnated her and drove her to an abortion clinic in the summer of 2010. Abbeville County Sheriff Charles Goodwin admitted in June he was the man seen on a 2001 surveillance tape having sex. Both men said they apologized to their families and citizens in their counties.
Also, prosecutors are reviewing whether Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon committed a crime when he slapped a man who was in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car after the man led police on a 25-mile chase in January. Cannon admitted slapping the man, saying his actions were wrong and welcoming any investigation. It wasn’t captured on tape, but he said coming forward was the right thing to do.
And in May, Orangeburg County sued the estate of the late Sheriff Larry Williams, saying he took more than $200,000 of county money and used it on personal expenses like paying off a loan on his RV. Williams died in 2010, and the missing money was found during an audit ordered by his replacement.
So many people already have a cynical view of law enforcement that it becomes especially damaging when they see the top cop in a county breaking the law or using poor moral judgment, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said.
“We want people to believe in us. We want them to trust us,” Lott said. “But we take one step forward, one of these things happen, and it’s 10 steps back.”
Lott, who took office in 1997, was one of the few longtime sheriffs in the state that would speak publicly. Several sheriffs refused to talk about the incidents, some saying they didn’t want to pile on and others saying they did not want to talk about innuendo.
Every sheriff in South Carolina has to deal with rumors about conduct and behavior. It comes with the territory when you are among the most powerful public officials in the state. Sheriffs are given absolute authority over hiring and firing, and most aren’t shy about getting rid of officers they don’t think are loyal.
Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews, who was elected in 2010, said he fired a deputy who sent racy text messages to a woman and will fire any of his officers who cheat on their spouses. The deputy was fired after the woman complained. Matthews tells his deputies that he won’t tolerate adultery or casual sex relationships.
He said a law officer loses all his effectiveness when he no longer has his integrity, and that is an even bigger problem with a sheriff who has such a public profile and so much power.
“In some cases, I think people get into office and they are overwhelmed by it,” Matthews said.
Loftis was careful not to single out any particular person during his speech. He quoted the Greek philosopher Socrates, who said the greatest way to live with honor is to be the person we pretend to be with others.
“There are too many instances throughout the country of law enforcement lying, cheating and stealing. If we could simply live the life we say we do, we would not bring dishonor to our profession. As president of the sheriff’s association, I give you my word that I will live what I preach,” Loftis said in his speech.
A law officer since 1974, and sheriff in Greenville County since his predecessor died in 2002, Loftis said he is at a loss to understand why such an alarming number of his colleagues are behaving badly.
“I really can’t put my finger on why it happened. It is just some bad judgment,” Loftis said. “Sometimes when people get into an elected office, some of them could tend to forget where they came from and develop a holier-than-thou-attitude.”