South Carolina governor Henry McMaster’s choice to replace scandal-scarred Leroy Smith as director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) faces his first legislative hurdle this week – although Reggie Burgess is expected to clear the bar with room to spare.
Burgess, chief of the North Charleston police department, was nominated by McMaster back in November to take over for Smith – who announced that he would be stepping down in February 2020 after nearly a decade on the job.
Burgess will appear (.pdf) before a S.C. Senate judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday (January 21, 2020). His nomination is ultimately subject to the advice and consent of the full S.C. Senate, which means he must first navigate subcommittee and full committee hearings within that chamber.
Normally this process is perfunctory, but with McMaster it has proven to be quite dramatic upon occasion.
In the case of Burgess, senatorial review should be thorough … not because of any issue with him, mind you, but because McMaster demonstrated such poor judgment in leaving Smith at his post for so long.
Burgess may be the perfect choice for this position, but the man appointing him has zero credibility after leaving Smith on the job for the last three years.
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In the spring of 2017, state lawmakers issued a damning report alleging that Smith (above) – who was first appointed to his post in 2011 by former governor Nikki Haley – had presided over soaring traffic fatalities, lax law enforcement, misappropriation of public funds and double standards in the administration of internal justice.
Allegations of reverse racism (a.k.a. racism) were also leveled – although Smith claimed in his farewell message that SCDPS “ensured fairness and equity in hiring practices” during his tenure.
A group of fourteen lawmakers wrote a letter to McMaster in late 2017 informing him they had “no confidence” in Smith’s leadership of the agency and its most visible subsidiary, the S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) – which continues to suffer from severe shortages under his tenure.
“The dedicated men and women of the Highway Patrol, deserve better,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter to the governor.
One veteran SCHP trooper resigned during a legislative hearing in protest of Smith’s poor leadership.
McMaster ignored lawmakers (and troopers) and kept Smith at his post …
Last year another scandal rocked SCDPS – this one involving allegations of preferential treatment involving the 2014 arrest of a prominent supporter of Clemson University. One of the SCHP leaders involved in that scandal was allowed to retire from the agency last fall (and controversially managed to avoid criminal charges in connection with the alleged uneven administration of justice). Curiously, Smith promoted the officer at the heart of the scandal three years ago.
Smith also drew criticism last summer for attempting to create a needlessly duplicative helicopter program at SCDPS – a decision he later rescinded. Troopers were especially miffed over this attempted misappropriation given the crucial shortages of manpower and resources at the agency.
Our real issue with Smith, though, has always revolved around the shortages of troopers – which we believe have materially impacted public safety.
We first began reporting on the alarming shortage of SCHP troopers on Palmetto roadways back in late 2016. In the fall of 2017, we published a follow-up report on ill-conceived efforts by leaders at the S.C. Department of Public Safety (SCDPS) to address these shortages – notably by rushing troopers onto the job without adequate training.
“These trooper shortages constitute an unconscionable neglect of a core government function,” we wrote back in October of 2017.
Last April, we published another report detailing how these trooper shortages had escalated despite tens of millions of taxpayer dollars being spent on training new trooper classes over the past seven years.
“There are supposed to be at least 1,200 troopers on South Carolina highways at any given time,” we noted at the time. “Sadly, the Palmetto State is nowhere near that optimum staffing level … and is in fact continuing to lose ground.”
This news outlet has no position on the nomination of Burgess. We have heard both good things and bad things about him, and we look forward to taking inventory of the man based on his merits (and demerits) in the weeks to come as his nomination process advances.
On one point, however, we have absolute clarity: The next director of this agency must target resources where they are needed, apply even-handed internal justice and restore public confidence in this agency and its ability to perform its core law enforcement functions. Meanwhile, state lawmakers must stop wasting money on non-essential appropriations and prioritize law enforcement spending as a core function of government.
After all, it is not as though taxpayers haven’t provided them with sufficient funds …
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