Building Trust from Central South Carolina to Iraq
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott’s approach to policing
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
It was nearly 10 years ago that Sheriff Leon Lott – 14 years into his now more than two decades as sheriff of Richland County – was invited by the Iraqi government to help that country stand-up its first-ever female police academy. He went. They planned, established, trained, and it worked.
According to a 2016 article published by the U.S. Army, “The invitation from the Iraqi Police Service came as a result of the Sheriff's internationally recognized success.”
Recognized success indeed; and it has been Lott’s success in seemingly everything he has been involved in since becoming an RCSD patrol officer in 1975 and his subsequent often-colorful ascension up through the ranks – along the way serving a stint as the chief of police for St. Matthews, S.C. – to being elected sheriff of Richland County, time-and-again, to earning unassailable trust and recognition as one of the most creatively innovative, bridge-building law enforcement leaders in the nation.
For those who know him best, it’s no surprise that Lott is largely responsible for the success of the Iraqi female police academy. Or, that Lott is the primary driver behind why RCSD is the only one of the six regularly featured law enforcement agencies on A&E’s hit television series LIVE PD which has been with the program since it first aired in October 2016. It’s also why RCSD was the first law-enforcement agency in the nation to establish a pre-PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury also known as PTSD) conditioning program for deputies and other officers. And, it is why Lott has earned the trust, respect and admiration of both his peers in police leadership and, more importantly, the people he serves.
"Sheriff Lott embodies what we expect of a great leader; one who leads from the front and is professional, progressive, innovative and accountable to his staff and the public he serves,” says Columbia Police Chief William H. “Skip” Holbrook.
Trust and respect in 2018 are not easily obtained. Law enforcement leaders are tasked with working and relating to diverse communities that are increasingly polarized, racially and politically charged.
“You have to sincerely and actively love the communities you serve, the people in those communities, and the deputies and others in your charge,” says Lott. “I do, I have, and I always will, because they are all like family to me. And we are all in this life together.”
It’s really as simple as “relationships,” says Lott. He has striven to instill this idea of relating to all people in his 900-plus employees. Of that 900, nearly 700 are sworn officers, everyone from a patrol deputy to a member of RCSD’s Special Response Team (SWAT team). “Caring for one-another and for others beyond our immediate reach is part of our culture,” Lott adds.
That caring and outreach Lott speaks of is easily seen in his department’s multi-faceted approach to community relations.
“You have to nurture and bring sunshine to this culture of community relations between the police and public,” says Lott. “If you don’t, all the good work you are trying to do will dissipate among the daily and nightly grind of patrolling, responding, reacting to and always dealing with what might otherwise be an unhappy, untenable environment.”
The nurturing Lott and his deputies have done in so many ways is obvious; from hosting basketball tournaments to LIVE PD pizza parties to local festivals and other events to simply visiting with people in their homes. And, it’s all working.
RCSD serves a deep-South, racially diverse population of nearly a half million, and the department’s vast jurisdiction is not without crime, including everything from robberies, homicides, and drugs to gang-related activity (an unfortunate reality of policing in a modern metropolitan area). But rarely, if ever, will anyone hear of rioting and other forms of mass violence in and around Columbia or any of the other outlying regions of the county.
Lott attributes this success to a number of factors. The department’s Community Action Team (CAT Team), the Citizens Advisory Council and various other programs have “built an unshakeable culture of trust, respect, mutual-caring and frankly long-term friendships and family relationships between our department and the communities that have not only benefited us in terms of keeping the peace, enforcing the law, collecting good intelligence on bad guys, and helping rid our neighborhoods of any criminal element that might otherwise move-in, fester and takeover,” Lott added.
Lott’s aforementioned “caring” also begins at home.
BATTLING POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS INJURY
It was nearly three years ago that Lott developed and launched his unique in-house PTSI conditioning program, which is today required of all his officers. This program, called the Critical Incident and PTSI Awareness program, covers everything from stress reactions (physical, cognitive, and emotional) to PTSI myths, causes, coping strategies to departmental policies and procedures.
The program was and is necessary to further protect the lives of his men and women. “It is the sole reason we developed it,” says Lott.
The program is effective and, at the time Lott’s program began in January 2016, it was and perhaps still is the only initiative nationwide addressing PTSI on the front end before any of his officers ever hit the street.
Lott’s approach to relationships, both internally and in the community, parallels his own family relationships (a wife, four children, and three grandchildren) which, despite his full schedule, he makes a priority.
Lott has always been a team player. But, he thinks and operates like a baseball player, which he was. In high school, Lott played football and baseball. In college, he was a pitcher and second baseman for University of South Carolina-Aiken.
His lifelong love of athletics has led to his establishment of a culture of physical fitness within RCSD and ensuring his deputies are all in top physical condition.
In 2012, Lott pre-selected, conditioned, and took a team of his fittest deputies to Encinitas, California where they underwent a 50-hour training program taught by former U.S. Navy SEAL instructors; the program based on the model of the SEAL’s infamous “Hell Week.”
“We trained and were physically conditioned prior to attending the program, still all were humbled physically and mentally during the camp,” says Lott. “I participated and watched a team become even more prepared to be a well-oiled machine of men and women capable of mentally and physically facing any challenge presented to them in their responsibilities as law-enforcement officers.”
“Physical fitness is a requirement to be a cop as is mental fitness, which is why we have the pre-PTSI conditioning program,” says Lott. “We simply owe the communities we serve to be the best we can be for ourselves and for all of them.”
Lott’s legacy continues to grow, and may best be defined as his instilled culture of caring and operating beyond the normal confines of ordinary policing. “There is nothing ordinary about law enforcement,” he says. “Because there is nothing ordinary about people. Most people are good. They want you to relate to them, and nearly all have a spark of extraordinariness within them.”
He adds, “Embrace those truths, and the mutual trust will fall into place.”