DPS chief says popularity of picture of him with white supremacist ‘surprised’ him

South Carolina Department of Public Safety Chief Leroy Smith (left) helps a man wearing a white supremacist T-shirt who was overcome by the heat during Saturday’s Ku Klux Klan rally at the Statehouse in Columbia. The picture, taken by a member of Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff, went viral, prompting Smith to downplay the irony of the situation.

COLUMBIA — The Department of Public Safety’s top cop said a picture of him helping a white supremacist that went viral showed “who we are in South Carolina.”

DPS Director Leroy Smith was among several law enforcement agency heads — including State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel and Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott — working in uniform with their officers during Saturday’s Ku Klux Klan and Black Educators for Justice rallies at the Statehouse.

Black Educators for Justice, a group affiliated with the New Black Panther Party, held a rally at noon, while North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the KKK held their own at 3 p.m., when temperatures reached the high 90s and the heat index — what it actually felt like — topped 100, according to the National Weather Service’s forecast office in Columbia.

A participant in the KKK rally asked Smith to help two men — including one wearing a T-shirt with the emblem of the National Socialist Movement, a white supremacist party — who weren’t feeling well because of the heat.

As Smith — who is black — helped the white supremacist to the top of the steps of the Statehouse and away from the “Famously Hot” city’s blistering heat, Gov. Nikki Haley’s Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Godfrey snapped a picture of it and posted it on Twitter.

“Not an uncommon example of humanity in SC: Leroy Smith helps white supremacist to shelter & water as heat bears down,” Godfrey tweeted.

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Social media posters jumped on the irony and humanity of the picture, retweeting it more than 5,000 times. Smith, a soft-spoken and affable man, downplayed his actions.

“I have been somewhat surprised by how this photo has taken off and gone viral around the world,” said Smith in a news release. “Our men and women in uniform are on the front lines every day helping people — regardless of the person’s skin color, nationality or beliefs. As law enforcement officers, service is at the heart of what we do. I believe this photo captures who we are in South Carolina and represents what law enforcement is all about. I am proud to serve this great state, and I hope this photo will be a catalyst for people to work to overcome some of the hatred and violence we have seen in our country in recent weeks.”

Smith is a veteran law enforcement officer who was appointed to lead DPS by Haley in 2011. Before coming to South Carolina, he began his career with the Florida Highway Patrol in 1989 in Sarasota, according to a 2009 FHP news release.

Reach Cynthia Roldan at 708-5891.