“With this indictment, we honor the hard work and dedication of the very fine officers across South Carolina who put on the police uniform every day and risk their lives to protect the rest of us. If these allegations are proved, these defendants do not deserve to wear the badge and should not be allowed to bring disrepute on the overwhelming majority of men and women in blue who serve South Carolina with integrity. We will not tolerate the hypocrisy of those who would pretend to enforce the law, while violating it themselves as they seek to line their own pockets. We call that public corruption, and we will always call it out.”
In making the statement a week ago that seven law enforcement officers from Orangeburg County were being charged with corruption, South Carolina U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Lydon was careful also to state that suspects are to be presumed innocent unless found guilty.
And if any of the accused ultimately are exonerated, they are due headlines of the same sort as greeted their arrests. But let’s be clear, the U.S. attorney did not make the case resulting from a sting because the office does not believe it can make the charges stand up.
Such an investigation alone resulting in charges of visa fraud and protection of drug trafficking is stain enough on law enforcement – and not just in Orangeburg County. What happened taints all law enforcement at a time when there is such a need for public faith in and cooperation with those sworn to serve and protect.
One of the schemes alleged in a 13-count indictment involved fraudulent U Nonimmigrant Visas, which are set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse as a result of the crime. To obtain a U-Visa, a law enforcement official must certify that the alien is assisting that law enforcement agency in the investigation or prosecution of the crime of which the alien was a victim.
According to the indictment, four officers helped individuals obtain fraudulent U-Visas by taking bribes for fraudulent certifications and creating fraudulent incident reports indicating that aliens were victims of crimes.
The indictment further alleges that officers took bribes in exchange for protecting methamphetamine and cocaine or the proceeds of drug trafficking.
Sheriff Leroy Ravenell responded to news of the indictment with expected disappointment and anger as four of the officers indicted were his deputies, one stood as a reserve officer, and two others, including the Springfield police chief, were formally with the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office.
"I stand here angry – no, mad as hell and extremely, extremely disappointed in the alleged actions,” Ravenell said. “I will never turn away an outside agency when they are trying to do an investigation and trying to rid of anything or anybody not standing for law and order.”
The sheriff has right to be angry. The news that those he put out front to serve the public are accused of such crimes is bad for an agency that needs all its personnel in a huge county in which people are already complaining about not enough coverage.
He said the loss of the deputies does hurt the office's ability to provide coverage for the 1,100 square miles and almost 100,000 citizens of Orangeburg County.
But these are not normal times. The sheriff, as are city police and law enforcement around the county, is facing a wave of violence that has people comparing things to the early 1990s.
Anyone with knowledge of those years in Orangeburg knows that Connie L. Johnson in her recent column, “Surviving Orangeburg,” is not the first to compare today’s happening with the violence during the height of the crack cocaine crisis.
These are tough times at the office of Leroy Ravenell. But we have faith in him as did the people of Orangeburg County in overwhelmingly re-electing the sheriff in 2016 with 83 percent of the vote in a three-way race in the Democratic primary. He was unopposed in the general election.
The sheriff will overcome this obstacle. He must. There is much to address in this county.
And those he trusted have made the mission tougher. As the sheriff said, "It is a sad day for law enforcement. Here we are again having to fight for the trust of citizens for what they are paying us to do."