Knaack: Criminal justice is on the ballot in Charleston County

Jackson Bailes file photo

The protests demanding an end to racial injustice and police brutality that swept the country following the murder of George Floyd showed the nation that calls for top-to-bottom change can no longer be ignored. The message wasn’t just sent to the White House and Congress, but also to our state and local leaders who make key decisions on how our criminal justice system operates and impacts members of our community.

While candidates often employ racist dog-whistles to fan people’s fears, such rhetoric no longer has to dominate the debate. The people who have taken to the streets advocating for an end to violence by law enforcement have made sure that politics as usual can’t continue. 

Knaack | Photo provided

The ACLU has been working to change the conversation around criminal justice on local, state, and national levels. Locally, we are committed to ending South Carolina’s two-tiered justice system and building communities that extend safety to all people and not just some.    

One key local office that has a major impact on public safety and justice in our communities is the office of the Charleston County Sheriff, which is on the ballot in this election. The sheriff manages the largest sheriff’s department in the state, commanding both field deputies and the county jail. 

We asked both sheriff candidates, Al Cannon and Kristin Graziano, about urgent civil rights and civil liberties issues including racially biased policing, immigrant detention, and community oversight of police. The ACLU does not endorse or oppose candidates for office, but we believe that voters deserve to know where the candidates land on key issues to cast an informed vote. Especially in local races like sheriff, our votes drive the concrete policy outcomes that deeply impact our lives.

Graziano pledged that if elected she will enact a use of force policy that directs officers to use de-escalation whenever possible, ban no-knock warrants that let officers enter homes without announcing themselves, and establish an independent community board to provide opportunities for more oversight and public input.

She also committed to reduce the sheriff’s budget and seek the reinvestment those funds toward non-law enforcement services like education and mental health services and terminate agreements with the federal government, such as the anti-immigrant 287(g) policy, that promote racial profiling and target immigrants for detention and deportation.

While Sheriff Cannon has not responded to our questions, he is on the record opposing a ban on no-knock warrants and supports continuing a policy of working with the Trump administration to deport immigrants. He also recently urged Charleston law enforcement to be more aggressive in repressing recent Black Lives Matter protests and has spoken publicly against a racial bias audit of his department.

Charleston County voters should ensure that whoever is elected sheriff is held accountable for the unjust racial biases in the criminal justice system and supports a public safety system that ensures the safety and well-being of all.

Frank Knaack is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina.

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