Richland County Sheriff Leon Lawson Lott, Jr., made history this year — not only for himself but, as he is quick to point out, the nearly 900-employee Richland County Sheriff’s Department he leads, the communities RCSD serves, and more broadly the state of the South Carolina.
In June, Sheriff Lott was named National Sheriff of the Year 2021 by the National Sheriffs’ Association. A month later, he was awarded South Carolina Sheriff of the Year 2021 by the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. The reasons were and are myriad: everything from RCSD’s high-tech innovations to in-house programs that have served as models for other law enforcement agencies nationwide to robust community outreach efforts within Richland County, and so much more.
The National Sheriff of the Year award, officially the NSA Ferris E. Lucas Award for Sheriff of the Year, was a first for Lott and the state of South Carolina. Until this year, no sheriff from the Palmetto State had ever received the award. Additionally, this is the second time Lott has been named South Carolina Sheriff of the Year; he first received the lofty award in 2005.
“Two such awards within the span of two months is tremendously rewarding,” says Lott. “Make no mistake, though — these two awards are not nearly as much about me as they are about the department, the communities we serve, and the state.”
As if the two personal awards were not enough, in late July Sheriff Lott and RCSD were jointly presented the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Extraordinary Employer Support Award from the U.S. Department of Defense. The ESGR Extraordinary Employer Support Award recognizes previous recipients of the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, which RCSD received in 2013. Only 280 employers nationwide have received an ESGR Freedom Award since the award’s inception in 1996. Freedom Award winners are selected annually from approximately 3,000-plus nominations from across the nation. As such, RCSD is the first and only recipient of the Defense Department award in South Carolina, another first for the Palmetto State.
It’s all a result of hard work on the part of RCSD deputies and other employees and a culture of excellence that permeates every section, division, and jurisdictional region within the department, says Lott.
“It also reflects the fact that RCSD has the best command climate in the nation,” says retired U.S. Army Col. Kevin Shwedo, the current civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army and the executive director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. “Command climate is a combination of organizational culture established and enforced from the leadership and a desire for excellence in the ranks.”
That command climate, of course, begins with Lott, who has spent 46 years in law enforcement, a quarter century of that time as the seven-times elected sheriff of Richland County.
Born in Aiken in 1953, Lott was the typical all-American boy. “I lived for sports — football and baseball — and also rabbit hunting, bird hunting, and fishing,” says Lott, who described his earliest hunting excursions as a boy armed with a BB gun who bagged all manner of birds. “I was taught you don’t kill anything you don’t eat. I’d shoot sparrows and blackbirds, then clean them, and my mama would cook them for me.”
Lott spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm near the tiny town of Vaucluse in the Horse Creek Valley just outside of Aiken, where, when he was not hunting or throwing a ball, he milked cows, tended a garden, and generally helped his parents and grandparents do whatever needed to be done. Considered a responsible boy, Lott got his first shotgun, a Mossberg .410 bolt-action, for Christmas when he was 10 years old. “I still have that shotgun,” he says. “It’s the one McKenzie [his youngest daughter] learned to shoot.”
The following Christmas in 1964, Lott received a King James version of the Bible. He still has that treasured gift, too. In fact, that Bible is the very one he has used for his seven swearing-in ceremonies as sheriff since 1997.
Christmases were always a big deal for the Lott family, he says. “They still are. Then and now we’ve always had huge Christmases with a lot of family and lots of presents.”
Lott’s father’s family has deep South Carolina roots, but his mother’s family was from Chicago. “So every summer we’d go to Chicago, and while there we’d attend as many Chicago White Sox games as possible,” says Lott. “I became a huge White Sox fan. Still am.”
As a teenager, Lott played wide receiver on the Aiken High School football team and pitcher on the Aiken High School baseball team. He first learned to drive a tractor, then his dad’s pickup truck. His first car was the family’s Ford Galaxy 500, which was passed down to him. “My first real car was a turquoise 1968 Mustang, later a green 1970 Pontiac Formula 400,” he says.
It was during Lott’s high school years that the Vietnam War was raging, and he wanted to serve his country. “My plan after high school was to join the Marine Corps,” says Lott. “After a few years in the Marines, I would go to college and then I would become a cop.”
That plan changed when a high school girlfriend learned Lott was going into the Marines. “She had lost a brother in Vietnam, and when I told her I was going into the Marines, she broke down and wept,” Lott says. “So I didn’t do it, and her reaction to my initial decision probably saved my life.”
He adds, “I lost friends who were older than I in Vietnam. I also lost friends to drugs who either died or went to prison during that period of time.” Lott graduated from high school in 1971, and entered the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he pitched for the college’s baseball team.
Earning an associate degree in police administration, Lott went on to attend USC in Columbia, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in sociology, followed by graduate studies toward a master’s degree in criminal justice. In time, Lott would attend and graduate from the FBI National Academy, the FBI National Executive Institute, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Furman University’s S.C. Diversity Leadership Academy. He also earned a master’s degree in emergency management from Lander University.
Lott’s career in law enforcement is as storied as it is celebrated. According to Lott, while still in high school, he and a few buddies became embroiled in a bit of mischief when they decided to throw eggs at cars from an overpass along Interstate 20. Lott’s accurate pitching arm aided in his youthful indiscretion. “I think the first car we egged stopped,” Lott told The State newspaper in 1996. “We had egged the chief investigator for the sheriff’s department. Me, being a baseball player … I had been the only one to hit the car.”
Lott and the other boys were apprehended. They were not charged, but their parents were called, and the incident and the professionalism of the investigator had a huge impact on the teenage Lott, who says he then decided, “I wanted to be a cop.”
Following college, Lott became a patrol officer in 1975 for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. His career trek advanced to criminal investigations, followed by a colorful stint as a narcotics agent, a lieutenant, then captain of RCSD’s Narcotics Division, an administrative captain, a uniform patrol captain, and a watch commander. In 1993, Lott left RCSD to become chief of police for the town of St. Matthews. And in 1996, he was elected sheriff of Richland County. The rest is history.
Since assuming command of RCSD, Lott has transformed the department into one of the best-trained, best-equipped, most-respected law enforcement agencies in the nation. That sterling reputation literally made its way to West Asia when in 2010, the Iraqi government reached out to Sheriff Lott for assistance. Once the request was cleared through the U.S. State Department, Lott and one of his senior deputies traveled to the ancient city of Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq to assist in that municipality’s establishment, planning, and training for the first-ever Iraqi female police academy.
The academy project was an enormous success, as were the beneficial information-sharing and joint-training relationships engendered.
RCSD has since developed many strong relationships and officer exchange programs with foreign law enforcement agencies, even working, training directly, and sharing intelligence and operational best practices domestically with S.C. Army National Guard security forces, various police SWAT teams from around the state and the nation, the FBI’s regional teams, U.S. Army Special Forces operators, and the U.S. Navy SEALs. Moreover, Lott’s creative innovations have often been emulated or adopted outright by other law enforcement agencies.
Among those innovations is Lott’s Critical Incident and PTSD Awareness Training program, essentially a pre-post-traumatic stress disorder (or post-traumatic stress injury, as Lott has directed his agency refer to it) program, in which deputies are conditioned to deal with the various physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms of PTSD before those deputies ever hit the street. Lott singularly conceived of the idea in 2015. The program became the first of its kind nationwide in 2016. Today, numerous agencies have incorporated the RCSD pre-PTSD conditioning model or portions of it into their training curricula.
“Just as physical fitness requires hard training and conditioning, so too does mental and emotional fitness,” says Lott. “Conditioning is key. That’s why we’re tackling PTSD or PTSI before it strikes.”
In 2019, the New York City Police Department Office of the Inspector General published a detailed 50-plus page report to the New York City police commissioner regarding officer wellness and safety in which the success of RCSD’s pre-PTSD conditioning program was referenced and described. The report also linked to and referenced an article about the RCSD program written for the national law enforcement publication, Police1.
Lott also instituted a “peace officer” branding initiative through Police2Peace, a national law enforcement support organization working with a research team from New York University. The initiative was one in which the words “Peace Officer” were emblazoned on vehicles beginning in 2018 and, ultimately, on officer uniforms as well. Together, Police2Peace and NYU also conducted a study on the benefits of the branding initiative and determined it to be a success in terms of positive community perception of RCSD.
Thanks to Lott, when the A&E top-rated television series “Live PD” premiered in late 2016, RCSD was one of six regularly featured agencies on the slate. That series continued for the next four years. The department was, in fact, the only agency to have appeared on the program throughout all seasons until its season finale in 2020.
Gov. Henry McMaster and Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a much-revered Marine Corps officer also from the Palmetto State, have both stated that RCSD is “highly regarded throughout the state, country, even internationally,” and that RCSD has been referred to as “America’s Law Enforcement Agency.”
The key to it all? Community outreach, says Lott. “One of our key successes as a department has been in the realm of community relations and community outreach,” he says. “This has been something on which we have placed a tremendous amount of focus and effort since I was first elected sheriff 25 years ago. And it has paid off far beyond anyone’s ability to measure it other than sheer experience in the field.”
As if his leadership of RCSD was not and is not enough, Lott serves or has served on countless boards and councils locally, regionally, and nationally. In 2018, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and the post of commanding general of the historic S.C. State Guard, a component organization of the S.C. Military Department, which also oversees the S.C. Army National Guard, the S.C. Air National Guard, and the S.C. Emergency Management Division.
For years, Lott pitched for the Columbia Braves, a Midlands area baseball team organized under the national Men’s Senior Baseball League / Men’s Adult Baseball League. He has won numerous top honors in the Police Olympics. At age 68, he continues to run and lift weights, and he CrossFit trains five days a week. Not surprisingly, he has been known to pursue and capture suspects on foot well into his 60s.
Just as Lott credits community outreach as the primary driver behind RCSD’s and his professional success, Lott says the success of his personal life, though it has not always been perfect, is and has always been family.
Lott is married with four children and four grandchildren. “I make sure I have time for my family,” he says. “Family comes first. There is nothing on this earth more important than family, and I tell my deputies the same thing.”