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Editorial: There's a way to rein in abusive SC sheriffs, after all. But it's extreme

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Prosecutors: S.C. Sheriff ordered deputies to improve his home, forced an affair (copy)

Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland (middle) watches his attorney, Andy Savage (right), and prosecutor Creighton Waters huddle before his hearing on Tuesday. Joseph Cranney/Staff

When suspended Colleton County Sheriff Andy Strickland got indicted Tuesday on 15 corruption and abuse of office charges — he had been suspended earlier after a domestic violence indictment — his attorney had an interesting take.

“The default position today is that the law enforcement officer is wrong,” Andy Savage declared. “The world has changed.”

No. That’s not the default position, at least not here in South Carolina. But yes, the world has changed. Until recently, the default position had been that the law enforcement officer is never wrong — even in those rare cases when it’s unquestionably clear that he killed an unarmed person, when no one’s life was in danger. Today the default is that when it’s painfully, unquestionably clear that a cop has broken the law in a big way, we’re sometimes willing to do something about it.

Of course that criticism about the world turning against law enforcement officers is meant to conjure up images of the dedicated officers who patrol our streets and come face to face with bad guys who want to kill them.

South Carolina has had a parade of sheriffs caught up in scandals in recent years. A Post and Courier investigation earlier this year found more misconduct. Published in March, “Above the Law,” showed that one in four of South Carolina's 46 counties in the past decade had seen their sheriffs accused of breaking laws they swore to uphold. By the end of 2019, three more sheriffs had been indicted and removed from office.

Mr. Strickland, who had the administrative job of running the sheriff’s office, is accused of flat-out corruption. Of taking advantage of the cops who are out there trying to protect us, by ordering them to work on his home, and on his campaign, while they were on duty. Of coercing an employee into a sexual relationship, giving away county property and illegally distributing prescription drugs. And more.

Mr. Strickland is the 14th S.C. sheriff in the past decade to be accused of breaking the law. Two more, and more than a third of our state’s 46 sheriffs will have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The Legislature has met this growing epidemic with deafening silence. But days before Mr. Strickland’s latest indictment, we got a valuable reminder that we don’t actually have to wait for legislative action to protect ourselves from abusive but not yet indicted sheriffs.

After a prosecutor determined that Union County Sheriff David Taylor didn’t actually violate the law when he asked employees to buy him alcohol while on duty and made sexually inappropriate comments, the Union County Council initiated a process to render the sheriff impotent.

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Although the state constitution requires that every county have a sheriff, it doesn’t say what sheriffs do. And a law that traces its roots to the 1950s allows county councils to create county police departments to “duplicate or replace the law enforcement functions of a sheriff.” Charleston County used to have a county police department; Horry County still does, and the sheriff is relegated to providing “courthouse security, processing warrants, fingerprinting, registration of sex offenders, funeral escorts, background checks and managing” the county jail. The main police work is left to the county police chief, who can be fired by the county administrator for a lot less than a felony conviction.

Now, this sort of arrangement is clearly redundant. It’s not a quick solution. And given some county councils we’ve seen, we’d never suggest that letting the county fire a police chief is a perfect situation. Such a drastic move is simply the only solution the Legislature has allowed.

What we need is for the Legislature to give us more solutions that don’t have these drawbacks — solutions that can deter bad behavior on the part of officials who have had every reason to believe the law doesn’t apply to them. That can start by requiring routine outside audits of all expenditures by sheriffs, requiring them to follow state procurement regulations, giving county officials clearer authority to deny sheriffs’ office expenditures and requiring sheriffs to post details about all their spending online.

And in case heightened scrutiny isn’t sufficient, the Legislature should give county councils the authority to remove abusive sheriffs. After all, the constitution allows for the removal of statewide officials (the agriculture commissioner and secretary of state, for example) who have far less opportunity for abuse than a sheriff.

If lawmakers aren’t willing to act, then perhaps more counties should consider workarounds to reduce the amount of power and money their now-unaccountable sheriffs can get their hands on.

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