Haley confronts sheriff on pledge

Gov. Nikki Haley announces a pledge the state’s sheriffs have signed to adopt uniform domestic violence policies.

COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley announced Wednesday that 45 of the state’s 46 sheriffs had signed a pledge to develop uniform criminal domestic violence policies in an effort to drive down incidents of domestic abuse across the state.

But during a news conference, she highlighted the absence of the only sheriff who did not sign the pledge — Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott.

“There is one sheriff in the state of South Carolina that does not seem to think that any rules apply to him,” Haley said as she stood flanked by more than a dozen supportive sheriffs from around the state. “It’s unfortunate Sheriff Lott was the only one who did not sign the pledge.”

Haley has had a running dispute with Lott ever since he endorsed her Democratic rival Camden Sen. Vincent Sheheen for the governor’s race in 2014.

Lott rebuked Haley’s remarks in a written statement, stressing his agency has led the fight against domestic violence since before the creation of Haley’s criminal domestic violence task force.

“I signed the pledge, and our executive director of the Sheriff’s Association was advised of such,” Lott said. “It’s a shame the governor is interjecting politics into public safety when we lead the nation in domestic violence-related deaths and assaults.”

Lott’s spokesman has since provided reporters with screen shots of text messages he sent to S.C. Sheriff’s Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder stressing Lott had signed the pledge and was planning to turn it in on Thursday.

Lott added that he participated in the task force’s meetings, and helped develop the guidelines — already adopted by his office — to address domestic violence.

The pledge calls for all sheriff’s departments to adopt an internal policy to ensure victim safety, offender accountability, and officer safety and accountability.

Beyond the political fight, the internal policy will require officers to file an incident report on every domestic violence call, mandate supervisory review of all domestic violence incidents and designate an individual to get copies of protection orders from Family Court. It also requires officers to conduct a “Wanted Check” at the scene of the domestic violence call and provide officers with a one-page reference guide on how to handle a domestic violence response.

The policy will help create consistency and reliable data, Haley said.

In May, one of the task force’s subcommittees learned that domestic violence data collected from throughout the state was unreliable and possibly highly inaccurate. They learned there were counties with soaring rates of domestic violence that were adjacent to others that had little domestic violence but similar populations.

Another revelation is that in counties where there are populations more prone to domestic violence, sometimes relatively few cases of domestic violence were reported.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon was at the press event and said reliable data is needed so that policymakers can determine how to proceed.

“As we find in so many other areas, not everybody is collecting the same information the same way,” Cannon said. “In order to act on addressing some particular issue, and certainly domestic violence is a good example, it’s very helpful when you’re getting data in that you have identified as important so you can see patterns and trends.”

A uniform policy also will help law enforcement officers approach all domestic violence calls in a consistent manner and without a doubt about how the call should be handled. In July, the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office was lambasted by victim advocates when one of its commanders — while trying to interpret and apply the state’s new criminal domestic violence law — sent a memo that instructed deputies not to file domestic violence charges unless the victim was willing to press charges. That was considered an inappropriate application of law.

After decades of doing little or nothing to address the epidemic of domestic violence that had plagued the state, lawmakers took action to strengthen penalties and ban abusers from possessing guns. The moves came after The Post and Courier exposed the problem in its Pulitzer Prize-wining series “Till Death Do Us Part.” The state’s new CDV law took effect in June.

Reach Cynthia Roldán at 843-708-5891.