DPS choice expected to get hard questions

Mark Keel

SC Governor's Office

COLUMBIA — Gov. Mark Sanford's nominee to lead the Department of Public Safety is expected to face some tough questions from senators today about how to restore trust in the agency under fire recently for allegations of trooper misconduct.

Former State Law Enforcement Division Chief of Staff Mark Keel was chosen to head the agency that oversees the Highway Patrol after Sanford accepted the resignations of Public Safety Director James Schweitzer and Highway Patrol Col. Russell Roark.

Both men resigned Feb. 29 following the release of videos that showed trooper misconduct, including using a racial slur and threatening a fleeing suspect.

"Mark ain't Jesus, but he's as close as I could find," Sanford said last month in announcing his nomination of Keel. He cited the veteran officer's three decades of experience in undercover narcotics, hostage negotiation and bloodhound tracking.

Videotapes that began emerging this year prompted state and federal investigations into possible civil rights violations. One video showed a white state trooper using a racial slur while chasing a black suspect.

Others showed troopers ramming fleeing suspects with their patrol cars and kicking a suspect in the head multiple times after a high-speed interstate chase.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Glenn McConnell asked his staff to compile questions and review dozens of videos in preparation for the confirmation hearing, which begins today. Panel members have said they expect Keel to face a grilling over the images but are confident that the misconduct will stop when he assumes control of the agency.

A senator on the committee that will consider Keel's nomination said Wednesday that he believes Keel's nomination will ultimately be approved, but it won't come without a thoughtful discussion of what the agency has been through in recent months.

"I think he'll probably even be asked, 'Is there ever a set of circumstances where it's appropriate for a patrolman or an officer to utilize a vehicle against a suspect who's on foot?' And there may be," said Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens.

Keel was SLED's chief of staff from 2001 until November, when he was named interim chief following Robert Stewart's retirement. Stewart recommended Keel as his replacement, but Sanford chose then-U.S. Attorney Reggie Lloyd, saying he wanted an outside perspective.