The State Law Enforcement Division, grappling with budget cuts that threaten to slash its funding by a third, is enlisting local sheriff's deputies to help with investigations.
Details of the plan will be announced at a news conference today in Columbia, but an early look at the effort shows that some county deputies would be sworn in as state constables. That would allow deputies to take part in a variety of duties previously held by state agents, including enforcement of alcohol sale laws or investigating video gaming machines.
Under the plan, sheriff's offices also would have an easier time contributing to probes in other counties, including the lending of resources and equipment such as helicopters that previously might have been supplied by SLED.
Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, said "constablizing" sheriff's deputies would help pick up the slack in other law enforcement duties, such as underage drinking or after-hours sales, that have been the purview of SLED agents.
"They are not major violations of the law," Moore said of alcohol enforcement, "but with the budget cuts, SLED has had to prioritize. They are a low priority, yet they still need to be enforced."
Other pluses range from shortening emergency response times, helping with gang investigations and supplying search teams, officials said.
The move comes one month after SLED Director Reggie Lloyd warned that the agency is poised to become a shadow of itself as the economic meltdown threatens to claim up to a third of its budget. As a result, the number of cases agents can investigate will drop, priorities will be redefined and SLED's ability to fulfill its mission will be hamstrung if legislators don't find a way to sustain its funding, Lloyd said.
For SLED, a total of 17 percent, or $6 million, has been cut from its budget since March when the House passed the original version, Lloyd said. At least another 2 percent must be cut from this year's budget. Agencies also have been told to brace for more cuts at the start of the next fiscal year that could reach 15 percent, or roughly another $5 million for SLED.
All this is compounded by the loss of federal grant money for crime-fighting tools; $4 million for laboratory analysis; and $1 million for a computer crime center.
Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said the strength of the plan to be officially announced today is that it would allow a quicker movement of resources, especially since criminals don't recognize boundaries or jurisdictions.
The speed factor alone makes it a more-effective approach, Cannon said.