Q&A with Beaufort County sheriff P.J. Tanner

The dream began to take shape 42 years ago. P.J. Tanner got to shadow his uncle, an officer with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

“We rode in the DNR boat. They paid for him to have a truck. A boat, a truck and serving others? Wow. That’s a dream job right there.”

As he became an adult, he looked to apply for the DNR, but because of a budget freeze, there were no jobs available. So his uncle introduced him to Beaufort County Sheriff Morgan McCutchen, who hired him three days after his 21st birthday.

McCutchen mentored Tanner, who is now in his 17th year as Sheriff.

Tanner reflects on where he’s been, where the county is now and what’s needed for the future.

Question: What’s the state of law enforcement in Beaufort County?

Answer: I see us in a real good position, with opportunities to better ourserves at what we do. Since I took office in 1999, we have increased special teams, increased technology, and we have grown the team and the budget.

It’s been a real benefit to the county to see the Bluffton Police Department take shape. Their department has grown from 5 to 50, and their coverage went from one square mile to 55 square miles. We’ve seen similar growth in Beaufort and Port Royal. It helps us focus on patrols and being visible.

We still are behind in the number of state troopers we have in the county. We are increasing gradually and hopefully we’ll see more numbers as the economy improves. The more traffic enforcement with multiple agencies, it reduces our responsibility on accidents. S.C. Highway Patrol, they own the highways. That allows us to increase patrols in neighborhoods and shopping centers.

We have good federal representation from the FBI, DEA and SLED. All and all, we’re in good shape.

I’d like to see the Town of Hilton Head work with us to increase our patrol numbers as part of their contract with our office. They pay $2.5 million for our services versus about a $15 million budget if they ran their own department. We need more bodies there. We are strong on service calls, but we need more patrols, especially in areas like the South End during summer.

We have the same number of patrols in the dead zone of February on the island as we do with 250,000 people here during summer.

Overall, I see a lot of positives. We know the economy is picking up when we see new home construction rising and tourism going up like it did this past summer.

The crime rate is low. There has been a decrease in violent crime for the last nine years. We’re very proud of the forensics lab we opened in 2010. All in all, we’re moving in the right direction.

Q: How does law enforcement change as the county goes through these growth spurts? 

A: It’s a lot of management and identifying trends to make sure we’re ready budget wise to get out in front of the growth. We’ve had amazing help in doing that from the county and from each town.

The technology has been so important. It works for us 24 hours, seven days a week. But we need the talented men and women to maximize that, and we’ve been very fortunate in our recruitment.

Q: You’ve been very vocal in your stance on body cameras. As such a tech advocate, why not this? 

A: It’s a hot button issue and I understand that. I’m not against body cameras, I just think we need to see this from all sides. I’ve been researching this for 10 years. We already have a top-of-the-line dashboard camera system across our fleet. They have microphones in the car and on the officers’ gun belt that picks up sound 1,000 feet away from the car. The body camera video quality is not as good as the dashboard cams yet. County taxpayers helped us achieve the dashboard rollout by contributing $2 million, and it’s still the best approach right now.

The state was going to try to mandate the use of the body cameras, and that just shouldn’t happen. We have issues with invasiveness and liability when we’re going into folks’ homes with these, and that kind of video will not be subject to the Freedom of Information Act like dashboard footage. There’s too many privacy issues involved.

I was very active in creating the statewide guidelines for dashboard cameras and I am now with body cameras. We need to make sure that the state will fully fund this before we attempt to roll this out.

With a workforce like ours with 335 officers, at least 250 of them would need body cameras. Across the state, it’s a $20 to $30 million cost just to get this going. Then you talk about storage of the video, which we keep as evidence for 10 years. Right now, we’re storing 250 to 300 videos per day with the dashboard cameras. We’re talking about a huge cost just for server storage of the body camera footage, which we’d have exponentially more footage to store.

We’re five years away at least before the state could even consider being able to fund this. And in that time, we’ll work to make sure we have the best technology and best training for our officers to be ready.

Q: With the incidents nationally and the climate for officers getting increasingly tense, what do you see in Beaufort County?

A: We are very fortunate. We have not been affected like Ferguson, Baltimore, New York and so many areas around the country. The community is extremely supportive of law enforcement here. We’ve had one complaint related to extreme use of force over the last eight years of accreditation.

Our officers watch a lot of TV, and go to sleep feeling very fortunate that we don’t face these issues. But seeing what’s happening around the country, it’s good training for our officers on what not to do. It leads to good conversations. Our officers are in shock as to what they see and how it leads a community to reject and mistrust law enforcement.

Q: You are a staunch Republican. Who do you like in the national Republican race?

A: I got great advice in 1994 when I first ran. A political adviser said to never mix your personal politics with any one else. I don’t give endorsements. I stay clear, because it doesn’t serve the office to do that.

With that said, I’m glad immigration is at the forefront so early on. Donald Trump has touched a nerve, he has a large following because we have failed our citizens here and folks are sick and tired of it. I don’t think Jeb Bush or any of the others wanted it to be such an issue. Immigration is a political football, it’s something no one wants to tackle. We’ve turned a blind eye as a nation to solving the issues for 30 years. We can’t do it anymore.

The viewership of the Republican debate, it tells me that citizens are completely frustrated and that voters want someone not afraid to get in there and make the decisions necessary to move us forward. There’s so much political correctness, so many politicians are hedging their bets because they’re indebted to so many different factions. I want someone who isn’t part of the machine, that isn’t indebted and isn’t afraid to make decisions.

Q: What do you do to unwind? Where’s the golf handicap these days?

A: I hunt and fish but I play as much golf as I can find the time for. I don’t like to practice, but my wife kicks me out of the house on Sunday afternoons, so I have a regular group I play with then. And when we have more sunlight, I can occasionally get out around 5:30 and get 18 hours in with buddies in two and a half hours.

Right now, the handicap is at 2.2. (Down from 2.7 when he last discussed it publicly in 2010).

Q: Has the immigration issues nationally made policing more difficult?

A: We have failed miserably here as a country. Before this current presidential administration, we had a 287-G program funded. We had a federal contract with the U.S. Customs Office under Homeland Security and put five officers through academy training on immigration enforcement. It was working well from 2008 to early 2011, we were working well with the state ICE staff in Charleston. Then this administration pulled the plug on it.

Their claim was they couldn’t afford to fund it, but with us, Beaufort County taxpayers funded the unit. I worked with Governor Mark Sanford and Tom Davis to focus on immigration issues. This administration has done everything they can to disarm and keep law enforcement from truly addressing immigration issues.

Q: How much of your job is politics? How have you gotten better at playing that game through the years?

A: I was told a long time ago by Sheriff McCutchen, when I first ran in 1994, that you need to keep the politics to a nine-month window every four years during a re-election. I make decisions based on public safety. It’s never about political ramifications.

That said, I wasn’t ready to be sheriff in 1994. I was still too much Robocop. I went to work for the state from 1995 to 1998. I made connections, saw how the political machine works by being in Columbia, by being on the Governor’s security detail. It made me ready and made me understand how to simply make friends instead of play politics. Ultimately, that makes sure we’re always focused on public safety.

I get along with County Council members and town councils, but we’re really only butting heads during the budget process. I don’t work for councils, I am an elected state official charged with leading public safety efforts. Our ties are financial.

Sheriff Morgan told me to go to work and do your job. It’s not about opinions or politics. We do what’s best for the county, best for citizens and best for the office.

Q: How has the forensics division and the new lab worked out?

A: It was years in the making. We justified the need, justified the expense and knew we needed to show results. It’s far exceeded my expectations on all fronts. The lab has proven itself to be an absolute need and has proven results. It’s shown how technology is so important in policing. We’re able to turn around lab tests quickly because we’re not sending them out, we do them in our lab. And in turn, we do work for the surrounding municipalities as well.

Q: Do you see yourself running again? How long do you want to do this?

A: I love my job. I remember the first day I started with the Sheriff’s Office, I loved the uniform, I loved the challenge and it was a great feeling to help people. Every day I still have that same excitement about the job.

My challenges have become a heck of a lot different than when I started in 1984. But it’s just as much fun. When we do strong investigations, when we can provide closure for victims and the community, it’s an amazing feeling. That never goes away.

I’m a hometown boy. I grew up farming the soy beans at Ulmer’s Farm in Bluffton. My dad worked for Union Camp for 40 years, my mom wanted to be a nurse but she sacrificed and stayed home to raise three boys. So I know where I’m from and what it means to serve this area.

A year into working for the office in 1985, the budget freeze was up and I had a chance to go work for DNR. But I was already hooked. It was too late. And I’m so happy for how it worked out.

Two years into the job, at 23, Sheriff McCutchen said to me, “Boy, what do want to do with this career?” I told him I wanted to be sheriff and he mentored me from there on out. I’ve had a 23-year-old or two do the same thing. And I tell them, “I’m proud of you and I’ll help you make that happen. But you’ll have to wait for me to step aside.”

I believe I still have a lot of service to this community left in me. As long as the job continues being this much fun and rewarding, I can’t imagine walking away. I’ve been lucky. I’ve always been able to see a bigger picture, to work with surrounding counties like Jasper, Colleton and Chatham in Georgia. Criminals don’t know county lines.

Q: For someone that values technology, you seem to personally be a bit averse to it. Why?

A: I’m a communication guy, but it’s not about starting my day by reading two hours of emails. I have an email address, pjtanner@bcgov.net. My assistant, Robin McIntosh, sorts through them and we respond to the ones we need to.

As an office, we’re active on Facebook, Twitter and Nixle. It’s a great tool to communicate with a lot of folks at once.

My office has four tires on it. I’d always rather talk to you in person. That way, we get to the nitty gritty quicker, we agree or disagree, but being face to face, you get to know me and I get to know you. You as a citizen call me, you want to talk, I’m there. I’ll come to you. It’s the way I’ve always been and I’m proud of that. It’s a lost art with the newer generations and that’s scary.

Q: What’s the biggest thing the department needs to make Beaufort County a better place to live?

A: We’re in the middle of an upgrade to our records software, a $2.5 million project. As that is completed, it will be so much more useful in tracking trends. I can know where the pockets of activity are, the time and day where we see the most traffic issues and be able to assign officers accordingly. It will be so much more efficient.

Gun violence has increased pretty dramatically. I’m all for the right to bear arms, but there’s too many criminals that don’t respect that right.

We’re seeing a lot of gang activity in surrounding counties. We’re seeing a lot of today’s youth only socializing on their computers. They’re not truly social, they are starving for connections, feeling disconnected and looking for a sense of togetherness and family. Gangs have been very successful in exploiting that.

We have to be just as proactive in showing kids that there’s a better way, that there’s people and communities out there where they can find that reward and not join gangs. It’s truly a huge undertaking. We’ll use technology and social media to combat it, but ultimately, it’s getting into the communities, showing folks we’re there and showing kids a different path.