By Barney Blakeney
It took me a little while to get to the story about the Palmetto State Law Enforcement Officers Association conference held July 8-12 in North Charleston – a lotta stuff’s going on. But I finally got the interview I needed. Retired Charleston Police lieutenant and current Charleston Housing Authority Director of Community Security Stephen D. Wright gave me what I needed.
The PSLEOA is the statewide organization of Black law enforcement officers – 230 members strong – in a profession where Blacks always have been an anomaly. Wright’s been a member of the 58-year-old organization since 1986. I’ve known Wright most of his life. Police blue runs through his veins. His uncle, my high school classmate and good friend, is a retired Charleston police major. Wright started with CPD straight out of high school as a parking enforcement officer. He rose through the ranks before retiring after 30 years 11 years ago.
I covered the PSLEOA conference in North Charleston last year when some 100 Black police officers convened. Wright asked me to do it again this year. I’ve found it’s always a good idea to stay in tight with cops. But like most folks, I don’t want to see ‘em until I need one. That’s been especially true for Black folks for a lot of reasons! That needs to change and the PSLEOA is trying to do that.
A lot of the history between Black people and police has been about conflict, but it hasn’t all been bad. In 1872, Edward Cain of Orangeburg became the state’s first black sheriff. But by 1898, even the majority Black population of surrounding Williamsburg County and law enforcement couldn’t protect recently appointed postmaster Frazier B. Baker and his infant daughter Julia who were lynched by a mob of whites in Lake City. During that same time period Edmund Jenkins was the Town of Mount Pleasant’s first town marshal serving from the 1890s until the late 1920s. Charleston police didn’t hire a Black officer in modern times until the late 1950s. Then their authority was limited. Black officers were not permitted to arrest whites.
Wright, noting that Blacks in law enforcement have come a long way since those days still in the memories of many, said the PSLEOA strives to continue that progress. As law enforcement across the nation experiences unparalleled criticism, Black law enforcement officers especially, find themselves at the epicenter of controversy. The theme of this year’s conference was “Cultivating Strong Roots in Law Enforcement; Why not us, Why not now?”
Wright estimates only about 10 percent–15 percent of the state’s law enforcement officers are Black. Last year about 21 percent of Charleston police officers were Black. Less than 10 percent of Charleston County Sheriff Office deputies are Black. The state’s 12 chapters work to gain trust in their respective communities, but they are challenged to convince young people that law enforcement offers professional opportunities as well as opportunities to make a difference, said outgoing President Lt. Mark Hamilton of the Berkeley County Sheriff Office.
With training sessions on topics such as Inspiring the ME Within, Leadership in Law Enforcement, Physical Awareness (Mental Approach) and the annual Youth Day at Wannamaker County Park, the association continuously works at fulfilling its purpose to enhance the visibility, professional goals and achievements of minority men and women in law enforcement in South Carolina.
In an era when corruption evidenced by the recent arrest of former Columbia Police Chief Randy Scott, his third arrest within 12 months after being accused by his probation officer of failing a drug test and near rampant incidents of excessive use of force, Wright said PSLEOA remains undaunted in its effort to have a positive impact. “Corruption hurts all of us,” he said.
To that end the conferees elected Greenville County Sheriff Department Sgt. Natalie Hill as its next president. In its July 12 closing ceremony the conferees welcomed the new president, executive board and committees as they continue as an organized entity to further its educational and professional objectives and its inclusion of all races, color, creeds, and origins standing behind the badge.