The "Thin Grey Line" how SLED's Lobbying hurts South Carolinians

Law Enforcement exists to “Serve and Protect” in the United States, which is different from much of the third world where Law Enforcement exists to exert the political will of their masters, or their own political will on their opponents… but this is South Carolina.  South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division or SLED is my state’s equivalent to the FBI, investigating all manner of criminal activities as well as providing support to local police and Sheriffs’ Departments. I wholeheartedly support this mission, if only Chief Mark Keel, the head of SLED, could stay on task.

            SLED and Law Enforcement should concentrate on solving and preventing crime. Violent Crime, for record keeping purposes per SLED, is defined as murder, sexual battery, robbery, and aggravated assault which involves the element of personal confrontation between the victim and offender.  Per SLED’s 2015 “Crime Book” South Carolina had 24,236 violent crimes committed in 2015 (1% increase) from the 24,011 violent crimes the year before. Juxtapose those numbers with the number of arrests for violent crime which were 7,926 for 2015 and 8,575 for 2014 (decrease of 7.6%) showing a clearance rate of 32.7% and 35.7%, respectively. That is a reduction of 9.2% in solving actual violent crimes. Again, I chose to focus on violent crime as that should be Law Enforcement’s “bread & butter,” the reason we spend the funds we spend on Law Enforcement. As these numbers show, SLED has been distracted from their core mission, and the citizens of South Carolina are the ones suffering for it.

            The abysmal clearance rate is in part due to SLED and Chief Keel being full time lobbyists for Law Enforcement. What many do not know is the vast amount of time and resources that are being diverted from fighting crime, to passing or blocking laws that directly benefit Law Enforcement. And to be clear, these aren’t bills that will have any effect on violent crime in South Carolina. These are bills, such as carving out exclusions to laws that apply to everyone for Law Enforcement, such as the ban on texting while driving which Chief Keel testified was “more dangerous than driving while intoxicated,” yet he actively lobbied for Law Enforcement to be able to text their girlfriends and wives on duty while driving. Of Chief Keel’s lobbying to kill Civil Asset Forfeiture reform; Civil Asset Forfeiture is where Law Enforcement can seize assets without charging or convicting someone of a crime, merely because the department “thinks” the property might be involved in crime. Those funds are then able to be used at the department’s discretion, such as in Greenville, SC, where the funds were used for officers to purchase drinks and lap dances at a local strip club. He also lobbied to ensure that the new Body Camera legislation ensured that any release of footage to the press or citizens would be at the sole discretion of the agency involved thereby ensuring officer misconduct would not come to light. These are the most egregious examples, but there are more.  Again, none of these will reduce the violent crime rate in South Carolina. Chief Keel even went so far as to instruct Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to take on duty officers off the streets, preventing and solving crime in order to pack a committee hearing on a bill he personally opposes, all at taxpayer expense. Earlier this year when Chief Keel was asked what SLED’s top priority for 2016 was, he did not respond with “keeping South Carolinians safe” or “reducing crime” or any Law Enforcement matters. His response was “Blocking Legislation” that he personally disagrees with.  As bad is this is, it gets worse.

            Over the past three years the South Carolina Legislature has been under criminal investigation by SLED for corruption and ethics violations. In and of itself, this is a good thing. If elected officials use their office for their own benefit, they should be taken to task. However, when this is coupled with Chief Keel’s lobbying efforts and his self-proclaimed top priority of blocking legislation, this creates a conflict of interest. It also raises the important question as to whether this investigation’s purpose is to catch those who violate the law, or influence legislation beneficial to Chief Keel both personally and professionally. Since this is an ongoing investigation, the subjects of the investigations are not publicly available. They are known to members of the Legislature and SLED. SLED and Chief Keel regularly lobby behind closed doors to those whom they are criminally investigating. An explicit threat of arrest, or reprieve from being arrested cannot be proven. However, if the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for South Carolina, who is investigating a member, tells that member how to vote… there is at least an implied threat of arrest for lack of compliance. This also leaves the public, and potential jurors to question whether Sen Jim Merrill or Sen John Courson were arrested because they committed a crime, or was their crime opposing Chief Keel and not voting the way Chief Keel wants? Is Chief Keel coercing votes out of our elected representatives under threat of arrest? Any investigation into the Legislature will be permanently tainted by Chief Keel’s lobbying efforts. SLED’s mixing Law enforcement and Lobbying must make all citizens take pause. It should also be investigated by Federal authorities. While some question whether SLED would purposely alter, or rig an investigation to their own ends, it has happened and it is under Chief Keel’s watch. SLED is currently under federal investigation for rigging investigations to suit their own purposes, even when their conclusions in the investigation go against objective forensic evidence. Is rigging an investigation into officer misconduct very different than rigging an investigation of the Legislature to pass or block legislation that far a stretch? I don’t believe so.

            The 16,310 victims of violent crime for which no arrest has been made should be up in arms. Victim Advocacy groups should call for Chief Keel to immediately stop lobbying on the taxpayer’s dime and do his job of protecting the citizens of this state. The new Governor Henry McMaster should immediately instruct SLED and Chief Keel to cease all lobbying efforts, in part to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation into the Legislature. Law Enforcement’s concerns already have the state Sheriff’s Association and the Police Chief’s Association to ensure that their concerns are heard in the Legislature, without the conflict of lobbying those whom you are criminally investigating on the taxpayer’s dime. To Chief Keel I say, “do the job the taxpayers pay you to do, keep us safe from violent criminals, or at least arrest those responsible.”

South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division was contacted for comment. Special Agent Tom Berry stated it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.