By Barney Blakeney
A Charleston Chronicle news report last week prompted a meeting between some civil rights organizations leaders and Charleston County Sheriff Office administrators. The article said some CCSO employees believe the agency reflects a disproportionate representation of the county’s African American population.
Charleston County’s population of approximately 350,000 is about one-third Black. About 25 percent of the sheriff office’s employees, including those working in law enforcement and the detention center, are Black – about 162 of the office’s nearly 600 employees. Forty-seven Blacks are among the 84 members of the command staff.
North Charleston Branch NAACP President Ed Bryant joined National Action Network S.C., Director Elder James Johnson and Pastor Thomas Dixon of The Coalition (People United To Take Back Our Community) in a December 19 meeting with CCSO Chief Deputy Mitch Lucas. Sheriff Al Cannon was unavailable for that meeting. He however on Monday provided comments in reference to their concerns.
After the December 19 meeting, Johnson said the sheriff’s office hopes to justify its employment diversity citing the difficulty in recruiting African American applicants. Only 32 of the 282 law enforcement officers are Black. But 130 of 300 detention center officers are Black. The office’s diversity numbers are shocking, Johnson said. The civil rights leader’s focus is on the lack of diversity among law enforcement officers, Cannon says, and that’s unfair.
Dixon said the information about diversity in the sheriff’s office is familiar. The recent news story again brought it forefront and opens dialogue to address it. Dixon said he is concerned that the dialogue began with sheriff office officials stating what can’t be done to improve diversity. “Until we change that mindset, we won’t change the situation. We should start by talking about what we can do,” he said. Even with the improved view of diversity provided by the numbers at the detention center, race and gender diversity is lacking, Dixon added.
Cannon, who has been Charleston County Sheriff since 1988, said diversity has been and remains a priority for his administration. The agency, despite having to compete with other industry that pay higher salaries, continues to attract personnel willing to perform the difficult jobs of law enforcement in both sworn and detention center duties. Minority officers play significant roles in both arenas, he said. Two of eight officers holding the rank of major or higher are Black. In a culture where police are demonized, especially in Black communities, attracting minority candidates is a challenge, he said.
Dixon said it all goes back to developing a pool of candidates willing to enter law enforcement as a profession. Current police practices don’t lend themselves to that, he offered.
“Ask any knee-high kid what he wants to be when he grows up and many will say ‘a policeman’. Something happens to that along the way to high school,” Dixon said. “The good thing about all of this is we’ve agreed to meet again. But meeting shouldn’t be the objective. We need to develop a plan and strategy to address the disparities.”