From major cities to small towns, people have expressed recently their feelings about the relationship between themselves and law enforcement.
In Beaufort County, that response took the form of numerous peaceful rallies involving hundreds of people. They were peaceful because – according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner – there was coordination and cooperation between the organizers and various law enforcement agencies.
“Here on the local level – we’ve had a few rallies in Beaufort, a few rallies in Bluffton and two on Hilton Head. All peaceful, no issues at all,” Tanner said. “Law enforcement up in Beaufort, the sheriff’s office in Bluffton worked with the organizers with those rallies, and everything went like clockwork. We negotiated what was the right thing to do, the safest thing to do and guess what – no issues.”
One of the reasons for that is the interaction county residents have with the different agencies.
“We work in a great community,” said Capt. Scott Chandler, acting chief for the Bluffton Police Department. “We have great respect for the community and I think they have a great respect for us. We have a great relationship.”
It’s not only the friendliness of the officers when they show up and play soccer with the kids or chat with adults at various community events – when that was possible. It’s not only because both agencies have conducted various citizen workshops and training programs.
It is primarily because the agencies hold themselves to high standards by policy-driven criteria.
Both the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) and BPD are certified by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Inc., (CALEA), an organization that promotes best practices for community-oriented policing. In a statement on the organization’s website, CALEA certification “creates a forum in which law enforcement agencies and citizens work together to prevent and control challenges confronting law enforcement, and provides clear direction about community expectations.”
“The benefit of the CALEA accreditation is what is called a ‘proof.’ Every time there is a high-speed chase, use of force or complaint of misconduct or a violation of policy, there’s a review of that complaint or policy violation,” said Tanner. “The proof goes in a file, which is an investigation of that incident or that policy. So every time someone uses their pepper spray, it goes in a file. Every time someone uses their firearm, it goes in a file.”
When an organization comes up for a recertification, all of those files are examined to see that the investigation complied with the standards set forth in the accreditation requirements.
“We’re policy driven, it makes it easier for our deputies to do their job. The policy is a roadmap. You understand what the rules of the road are within that organization,” Tanner said, “and then we send you to the Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia to learn the legal side of the laws that are enforced within the state.”
That doesn’t mean the officers or deputies are perfect.
“People need to recognize that officers are human. As police officers we’re not just a uniform with a badge,” Chandler said. “We make mistakes. If we do, call us out on it and we’ll correct it. That will make us better officers and serve the community better.”
Most of the complaints Chandler has seen came from someone not understanding why things are done a certain way. Often the questions can be answered by the officer or supervisor on the scene once the incident is under control.
“Once the explanation is given, most people are satisfied, and we’re the ones who can answer those questions they have,” he said. “Dialogue is key to education.”
In 2019, BCSO made 2,289 arrests and received six complaints, which turned out to be either unfounded or unsubstantiated – meaning they could not get to the bottom of the story, said Tanner.
In such a case, the polygraph may be used. If the citizen does not wish to take the test, the officer involved will be polygraphed. That’s in addition to the dash-cams and body-cams on each officer and in each patrol car.
“It’s amazing how complaints can turn into nothing when we have a citizen come view the video,” Tanner said. “They’re usually not eager to watch it but when they see themselves, the complaint goes away. Our deputies love them.”
Both the BPD and the BCSO have processes to file complaints.
“It depends on how it came in,” said Chandler. “If it’s on scene it goes to the supervisor. If it’s unlawful use of force, it would go up the chain of command and be handled by internal affairs.”
Both agencies have policies against the unlawful use of force.
In recent weeks, Bluffton has made an addition to their protocols. “One thing we did add was the ‘duty to intervene’ policy. If an officer sees another officer using unlawful and inappropriate use of force, they have a duty to stop that,” Chandler said.
That is the same as the BCSO’s protocols.
“All of the things that have been coming out for in the past four weeks, we already have policies to cover all of that. The choke hold and all the other stuff, we’ve had policies in place,” said Tanner. “We have been very, very attentive the last four weeks, after the Floyd murder. And that’s what it was – just flat-out murder. You can’t describe it any other way.”
Tanner said they are very attentive to what is going on around the country, following the national news, reading everything coming out of the FBI, and everything coming out of Homeland Security.
“Are we looking at our protocols and how we do things based on what we see on the national level? We look at that every day,” Tanner said. “We always plan ahead.”
The sheriff said he and his officers have discussed scenarios of potential unrest in the county, such as where it might occur. “The civil unrest that we’re watching wants attention. Those creating the unrest, they have to be in a metropolis or in a city where they can get national media attention,” Tanner said. “This isn’t that kind of area.”
Beaufort County might not include a major metropolis, but that fact isn’t preventing law enforcement from being prepared and looking ahead.
“I have to say this,” said Tanner. “We will not tolerate any lawlessness at all, so we’re preparing ourselves, knowing what our position will be. You can’t give an inch. You have to deal with those issues directly, using common sense and logistics. You deal with those things on the front end. And, I don’t believe the citizens of Beaufort County would tolerate any lawlessness either.”
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.