The Foundation of ‘America’s Law Enforcement Agency’

Countless law enforcement agencies have achieved fame and notoriety over the previous 100 years. High-profile criminal cases have led to the renown of many, as have the sheer number of police departments, sheriff’s offices and other law enforcement agencies at every level—locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. Among some of the best-known are NYPD, LAPD, FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, even Scotland Yard. There are many others.

Here in South Carolina, one of the best-known law enforcement agencies (LEAs), nationally and internationally, is the Richland County Sheriff’s Department (RCSD).

Led by Sheriff Leon Lott, a veteran law enforcement officer who has served in uniform since 1975 and as sheriff of Richland County since 1997, RCSD has earned its reputation as a model of professionalism not so much by the notoriousness of the criminals the department has pursued and brought to justice over the years — though there have indeed been those — but by the forward-thinking culture Lott has instilled in his RCSD over the past two decades and continues pressing hard today.

Things like community outreach and officer wellness are not simply component-parts within RCSD’s culture, which could easily be attributed to other healthy and well-founded LEAs. For RCSD, they are ardently embraced maxims brought to instinctive realities.

“It’s about an unwavering commitment to relationships,” says Lott. And he has striven to instill this commitment in his 900-plus-employee RCSD. Of that 900, nearly 700 are sworn-officers — everyone from a patrol deputy to a member of RCSD’s Special Response Team (SWAT).

“Caring for one-another and for those beyond our reach —outside of our immediate sphere— is a huge, defining part of our culture,” Lott adds.

The relationships Lott speaks of have been realized in everything from the nation’s first-ever pre-PTSI (post-traumatic stress injury or post-traumatic stress disorder) conditioning program — the brainchild of Lott which is now being inculcated into the training curricula of LEAs across North America — to an agency bound by an unusually strong familial cohesion, units geared toward and organized around community projects, and a constant cycle of community events wherein RCSD hosts everything from basketball tournaments, to local festivals, even Live PD pizza parties.

Speaking of which, Lott’s RCSD was one of the first agencies approached by A&E in 2016 before kicking off the network’s now-top-rated television docuseries Live PD in October of that year.

Lott appreciated the value of a Live PD series. RCSD was one of the “charter first.” And now as Live PD is roaring with high ratings into its third season, RCSD is still one of the featured LEAs; in fact, the only one that has been with the program since the beginning.

Referred to as “a model agency” by several law enforcement publications and general consumer magazines, even military leaders, international police and foreign military units have recognized the “model quality” of RCSD. That model quality has been recognized in everything from RCSD’s special operations units, to its media and public information arm, to forensics and investigations — which are considered second-to-none in the Palmetto State — to leadership development both within the department and out in the racially diverse communities RCSD serves.

At least one foreign country has called on Sheriff Lott to aid in building their own LEA based on the RCSD model. In 2010, Sheriff Lott was invited by the Iraqi government to help stand-up that country’s first female police academy in Iraqi Kurdistan. That project evolved into an ongoing relationship, which continues, between the leadership of Iraqi security forces and RCSD.

Today, there also are active police exchange programs between RCSD and Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, the UK and others. RCSD also conducts Special Response Team training with other police SWAT teams, the FBI’s regional teams, U.S. Army Special Forces operators and U.S. Navy SEALs. And when they are not “officially” training, RCSD deputies and other officers regularly meet for Crossfit workouts, often led by Lott who recently turned 65 but is still known as a cop with no qualms about pursuing a suspect on foot (which he did as recently as two years ago).

Speaking of RCSD’s “model quality,” U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston (Ret.), a recipient of the Medal of Honor, said, “The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is AMERICA’S LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCY.” A declaration not made lightly but earnestly, he added.

But it’s not simply RCSD’s culture and model quality, nor is it being “America’s law enforcement agency.” It is trust. “And trust is perhaps the quality we value most,” said Lott.

Trust is why RCSD was approached by the Florence County Sheriff’s Office and asked to take over the investigation into the fatal shooting incident which occurred in that county on October 3, 2018, where two Florence police officers lost their lives and others were wounded. That investigation continues. As will the trust, which Lott says is “the steel reinforcing the model.”