Sheriff has built trust from South Carolina to Iraq

by W. THOMAS SMITH, JR. November 17, 2016

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott's unique, effective approaches to policing

Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff Leon Lott has long-been recognized as one of the most creatively innovative, bridge-building law enforcement leaders in the nation, even internationally. And it is not necessarily the easiest "title" - for him or any other law enforcement leader - to obtain, particularly in the increasingly polarized, racially and politically charged realm of police officers operating-in and relating-to the diverse communities they serve.

But for Lott, it has been a series of challenges and sub-challenges that both appeal to him (for reasons I'll explain momentarily) and one which he has embraced with great surety and a comfortable, natural deftness.

Why? Because he simply cares about people, all people, and that's played out into "trust." Granted, that may sound a bit dull and vapid. But for Lott, this "caring" and resulting earned-trust are what are increasingly defining his legacy as the sheriff of one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in South Carolina and easily one of the most-respected in the nation.

This "caring" begins at home, he says, meaning his near 1,000-employee Richland County Sheriff's Dept. (RCSD), nearly 700 of whom are sworn-officers - everyone from a patrol deputy to a member of his elite Special Response Team (SWAT team).


It was for this "home," 11 months ago, that Lott developed and launched a truly unique in-house post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) conditioning program, today required by all of his officers - officially Critical Incident & PTSD Awareness - and covering everything from stress reactions (physical, cognitive, and emotional) to PTSD myths, causes, coping strategies, and departmental policies and procedures.

The program is effective to be sure; prompting accolades from a California-based police chief to a U.S. Marine general-officer and Medal of Honor recipient. It is unique in that though there are myriad PTSD programs and resources for actively serving police officers and recently returned-from-deployment combat soldiers, at the time Lott's program began (Jan. 2016) it was (and perhaps still is) the only initiative nationwide that addressed PTSD on the front-end before any of his RCSD men and women ever hit the street.

Gender diversity and assisting the iraqis

Speaking of women, his RCSD currently maintains a female employee ratio of 31.4 percent. Among the sworn officers, females make up nearly 24 percent. High percentages indeed. "Gender and racial diversity are vital to the success of this department," says Lott.  Which is why in 2010, Lott was invited by the Iraqi government to travel to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan (less than 60 miles from what is today war-torn Mosul) to assist in the establishment of, planning for, and training at the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.

"The Iraqis were aware of what we had accomplished here at the RCSD, and they wanted to use our model as a means of standing-up their own force and their new female police academy," Lott says.

According to a 2016 article written by Jennifer Stride of the United States Army Installation Management Command and subsequently published on the U.S. Army website, "The invitation from the Iraqi Police Service came as a result of the Sheriff's internationally recognized success in opening up RCSD to female deputies and other minorities." 

The work Lott and a few of his officers and staff were able to accomplish in Erbil in 2010, have resulted in strong relationships that exist in 2016. "While I was there, I knew those guys would have given their lives for me, as I would have for them," says Lott. "That deep professional bond exists today."

As do all of his relationships.

Playing ball

The approach to intra-and-extra-community relationships, Lott equates to his family relationships (a wife, four children, and three grandchildren) - which despite his full, often-harried schedule - he makes a priority; as well as his sense of "team."

Lott has always been a team player, not to sound cliché. But the man 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 on the University of South Carolina-Aiken baseball team.

It's also been his lifelong love of athletics that led to his establishment of a culture of physical fitness within the RCSD and ensuring his deputies are all in good health and top physical condition.

In 2012, he pre-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."

Part of the SEALFIT Academy directed by retired U.S. Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, the program was designed to prepare young SEAL hopefuls for the rigors of Basic Underwater Demolition / SEAL (BUD/S) training, the Navy's famous entry-level special-warfare course where the attrition rate is generally 80 percent.

"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 of being my number-one SWAT unit."

Today, the RCSD maintains a fully equipped CrossFit facility for all employees and their families, as well as fitness-center memberships, all for the asking.

"As we say, physical fitness is a requirement to be a cop," says Lott. "Physical fitness is a requirement as is mental fitness, which is why we have the pre-PTSD conditioning program. We simply owe the communities we serve to be the best we can be both for ourselves and for all of those whom we serve."

Other law enforcement leaders

Physical fitness, mental fitness, international relationships, close ties and goodwill from contemporaries leading other S.C. law enforcement agencies are what Lott has achieved for the RCSD.

"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 Chief William H. "Skip" Holbrook, Columbia (S.C.) Police Department. "I consider myself fortunate to work with such an accomplished, professional and respected lawman."

Kershaw County (S.C.) Sheriff Jim Matthews, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent who worked with Lott in the 1970's when both were RCSD deputies, agrees.

In his capacity as the DEA's resident agent-in-charge in S.C., Matthews recalls having "regular contact" with Lott who had been elected sheriff of Richland County. "I quickly recognized the great strides and improvements at the Richland County Sheriff's Dept. implemented under his leadership," says Matthews. "Everything from the lab, the increase in necessary manpower, the special units and the gear the deputies needed to perform their jobs."

Matthews adds, "During my tenure as Kershaw County Sheriff I've maintained contact with Sheriff Lott, and I am very impressed by the professionalism of his agency and the level of service that he provides the citizens of Richland County. He has truly brought the Richland County Sheriff's Department into the 21st Century."


As was reported during the summer in the run-up to the S.C. Democratic primaries - where both the state's Democrats and Republicans cast ballots - "Lott brings to bear a driven, caring personality along with the resources of the RCSD in a one-hand-feeding-the-other dynamic which in turn benefits everyone from the frightened mother of an at-risk teenager to the poverty stricken flood-victim in lower Richland County and everyone in between."

Then there are Lott's innovative programs from community advisory councils - giving voices to otherwise-voiceless members of the communities Lott serves - to community action teams to counter-gang units to special diversionary efforts aimed at keeping at-risk youth out of prison. Moreover, Lott's community outreach efforts, as reported, have manifested themselves as an RCSD cultural- expression of Lott's personable nature. For Lott, it's not about "simply knocking on doors, standing on the front porch and talking. He steps inside, sits down and breaks bread with families."

And his outreach is measureable. Lott, though white, handily defeated an also-popular African-American challenger and former State Law Enforcement Div. (SLED) officer in last summer's primary. And he did so in a county that is nearly split down the middle in terms of Black-White racial makeup (45.9 are black or African American, and 47.3 percent are white) not including other races.

In a June interview for the State newspaper, Lott said, "Politics have no place in law enforcement except I'm a cop that has to be elected to the position. My base is all citizens of Richland County and not one political party."

He later added, "Here in Richland County, there is a sense of family and community that supersedes party."

In a post-election interview, he said, "I am a sheriff for all citizens, and because I've gotten to know the people in the various communities in Richland County and they now know me, there is an unwritten though all-encompassing trust that exists between us that frankly makes my job easier, infinitely more rewarding and our communities safer."

Trust - a very real "fruit" of caring - and both have been the key to Lott's success, and the safety and security of the approximately 400,000 citizens of Richland County, S.C.

W. Thomas Smith Jr. - a former U.S. Marine rifleman - is a military analyst and partner with NATIONAL DEFENSE CONSULTANTS, LLC. Visit him at

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