A sheriff 's passion Policing got in Andy Strickland's blood when he was a boy

Sheriff Andy Strickland stands among patrol cruisers outside the Colleton County Sheriff's Office. Strickland, 34, a lifelong Colleton County resident, was elected in late 2012 as South Carolina's youngest sheriff.

WALTERBORO - Andy Strickland was too young to drive when he decided to run for sheriff.

At 10, he became enchanted with the idea of being a policeman.

It was a romance. He loved the hats that state troopers wore. Their .357-caliber revolvers also caught his eye.

But since boyhood, he has aimed to become Colleton County's sheriff. And 23 years later, he did.

"I always felt that I was going to be a sheriff one day," Strickland said. "I just thought it would be a little later in life."

Now 34, South Carolina's youngest sheriff finds himself leading an agency for the first time. In his first 16 months, he has been credited with turning around a 66-deputy department beleaguered by low morale and a perception that it wasn't taking seriously the area's problem with gang violence.

He has done that, locals said, simply by getting involved in the Walterboro-area community where he has spent his entire life.

He has marched with members of One Colleton United, a grassroots effort that targets crime by ministering to youths. Barnwell Fishburne, a local developer who works with the movement, said Strickland has helped reverse an alarming trend.

"For too long, the city and the county suffered under the hands of thugs running free," Fishburne said. "He came along at the right time."

Strickland's love affair with police work started after his father died when he was 10.

He started looking up to a friend's dad, a trooper in the S.C. Highway Patrol.

But his desire to be a trooper was about more than shiny shoes and a boyhood desire to drive a police cruiser.

"I wanted to help people and enforce the laws," he said. "The passion for being in law enforcement just grew on me. It just got in my blood."

When he graduated from Walterboro High School, he was too young under state law to be a trooper, so he got a job as a dispatcher.

Strickland was accepted to the Highway Patrol's cadet school after he turned 21, only to learn the next day that the state had no money to fund the school.

The revelation only briefly deflated his plans.

Then-Sheriff Allan Beach instead employed him as a deputy for a year until he seized a second chance to be a trooper in March 2002.

Strickland never moved away from Walterboro, though he first worked for the Highway Patrol in Beaufort and Jasper counties. In his first three years on the job, he led troopers in the two-county area with the most drug-related arrests.

He spent all but five months of the next decade in the agency's Troop 6. He took a short hiatus as an officer in the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Strickland wasn't afraid to try new things, even if it didn't pan out.

"I've always been a gambler, so to speak," he said. "Anything can work if you work at it hard enough."

That's why, during his years as a lawman, he tried his hand at business. He ran a chimney-sweeping company for 12 years and a restaurant for a year. He bought and resold some real estate.

But he belonged in the career he fell in love with as a child, he said.

He realized that during his time as a trooper in Colleton County.

Strickland was on patrol one night in 2009 when a car almost hit his cruiser. He chased the vehicle until it hit a church in Dorchester County at 100 mph. The car caught on fire.

What he did next earned him the state's Medal of Valor and Trooper of the Year honors for the Lowcountry.

He tried twice to pull the driver out, but the flames were too hot. He knew his third try would be his last.

"I can't explain it to this day, but I got him out," Strickland said. "Then I realized I went to high school with him."

Meeting the people he served and sometimes arrested, Strickland said, was his bread and butter.

In 2012, he was working for a short time as a Cottageville police officer when he threw his hat in the ring for sheriff. George Malone, who led the Colleton County Sheriff's Office at the time, had decided not to seek a third term.

"I don't come from politics," Strickland said. "I didn't know what I was getting into, so I took a chance."

Sticking to what he knew best - Colleton County and its 38,000 people - was key as a candidate and as sheriff, he said. He attended as many community events as he could, and in the November 2012 election, the Democrat beat his Republican challenger, Marshall Morehead, with 53 percent of the vote.

After taking the reins in January 2013, Strickland shifted his agency's focus to community policing. Adopted by departments nationwide, the effort called for his deputies to meet residents through friendly encounters instead of just contentious arrests.

As head of a 133-employee department that runs a jail, patrols streets and provides courthouse security, Strickland said past sheriffs sometimes lacked time to attend community events.

That's why, he said, he invited children to a "trunk-or-treat" event on Halloween at the sheriff's headquarters. He estimated that 1,000 children attended.

This Easter, children plucked 5,000 eggs from the sheriff's front lawn on South Miller Street.

Strickland and his commanders last year held 22 community meetings with residents. So far this year, that number is 37, he said.

When an ice storm ravaged the county in February, his deputies operated eight chainsaws and drove people to area shelters.

"We'll do whatever it takes," he said. "It's long hours, but we're trying to show from every angle that we care."

What spare time he finds, he said, is spent with his wife and 8-year-old daughter.

Fishburne, the One Colleton United leader, said Strickland's seemingly simple public-relations efforts have restored residents' confidence in law enforcement.

"Strickland has turned the (Sheriff's Office) reputation around 180 degrees," Fishburne said. "Whether it's a march or a manhunt, he's got the energy to do all that."

But for a small town, the Walterboro area has run into big-city problems in recent years.

Violent crime statistics in Colleton County and Walterboro both peaked in 2007, when the Sheriff's Office dealt with 302 such incidents.

After three people, including a toddler, were killed in a drive-by shooting in 2009, though, local and state authorities intensified their operations to root out the problem: gangs. A state investigation netted 20 gang members during a 2010 raid.

But authorities last year saw the problem's resurgence.

In July, a shooting that killed a woman at a Dorchester County nightclub was linked to a gang in Colleton County.

That prompted Strickland and Maj. Ken Dasen, interim director of the Walterboro Public Safety Department, to announce a "zero-tolerance" policy against gang activity.

"It's refreshing to have someone in his position recognize that there is a problem and say, 'Let's go fix it,' " said Barry Moore, the president of the Walterboro-Colleton Chamber of Commerce and publisher of The Press and Standard newspaper. "In the past, there was a sense of not facing the problem head on.

"He's wise beyond his years in terms of being able to see that big picture."

Strickland wanted to fight crime through the community-policing measures he promised as a candidate.

Part of that was requiring deputies to return residents' telephone calls. Victims and community members, he said, often want updates on crime and investigations, something they hadn't been getting.

"Some people just want to he heard," he said. "They want you to listen."

Chaplains often patrol with deputies to ease tensions during confrontations in the field.

Strickland struck an agreement with Crime Stoppers of the Lowcountry that allowed Colleton County residents to submit tips through a Sheriff's Office phone line.

He also shook up his command staff.

He promoted Buddy Hill, a former candidate for sheriff who had lost the Republican primary, to chief deputy. He hired several former Walterboro police officers, including Lt. Amy Stivender, who serves as his spokeswoman.

That dynamic was said to have improved a relationship between the county and the city.

Walterboro Mayor Bill Young, a schoolteacher here for 32 years, has known the sheriff since he was in high school. Later in life, they often lifted weights together at a gym.

"We're on the road to getting a good handle on crime," Young said. "The cooperation between the departments is why we're succeeding."

Community leaders see the collaboration between Strickland and the city's interim chief as unprecedented.

Dasen often discusses community concerns or policing tactics during cellphone conversations with the sheriff, he said. Their predecessors "didn't talk as much," Dasen explained.

"He may be young, but he's got a lot of energy," Dasen said. "That energy is overflowing to his deputies."

Strickland still clings to the memories of what police work was like when he was a boy. He still has a baton like the ones officers carried when he first envisioned himself as sheriff.

It will take several terms in office to completely realize that childhood vision, he said.

"This is who I am and what I want," he said. "This is me."

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.