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A Day in the Life of a police officer

This is part of a series of articles on the duties and responsibilities of municipal employees. For this article, we spoke with six police chiefs from across the state about the changes they have witnessed in law enforcement during their tenure, as well as the many challenges and rewards of the job.

Technology changes at warp speed, and its impact can be seen in nearly every facet of modern life. Police chiefs from around South Carolina say that growth of technology has been the most prominent trend in law enforcement over the years.

Lexington Police Chief Terrence Green has been with the department for 20 years and has served as chief for seven. In that time, technology has become a major player in the law enforcement field, Green said. From computers in cars, crime mapping, license plate readers, facial recognition, the use of  DNA, and the use of cameras, technology has transformed the law enforcement community. 

“Technology has given us a hands-up on solving crimes,” Green said.

It also plays a role in keeping officers safe. Central Police Chief Kerry Avery said that devices like Tasers help decrease officer injuries because they don’t have to get hands-on with combative suspects.

Clemson Police Chief Jimmy Dixon first started in law enforcement while in college in the 1970s. He’s spent his career working at the state police academy, various sheriff’s departments and the Clemson police department. He has seen technology advance by leaps and bounds during his tenure.

Clemson Chief Jimmy Dixon (right) and
Captain Matt Culbreath (left) discuss city crime data. 

“Law enforcement is law enforcement; policing is policing,” Dixon said. “But the way that we police has changed immensely in my 30-plus years.”
 
Clemson officers have mobile laptops and printers in their cars, Dixon said.
 
“We try to stay abreast and stay on top of technology changes,” he added.  

Irmo Police Chief Brian Buck noted that when he first became a patrolman, law enforcement officers traditionally used bulky walkie-talkies that had four channels and required lots of codes. Now they’ve moved to smaller, more powerful radios. Around the country, officers have cell phones, and some have portable fingerprint scanners to conduct identification checks in the field.
 
Irmo Police Officer Schylur Wells uses his in-car computer system
to quickly share information to provide better public safety.
 

Along with the advancements in technology, there have been other changes over the years—some with less positive impacts.
 
Chief Jackie Swindler has been chief of police in Newberry for 21 years. He has been in the department in Newberry for 38 years, having started work there in college. Over the years, Swindler has seen a sharp increase in multistate crime. It used to be when someone committed a crime, the person was from your jurisdiction, Swindler said. Today, officers work cases where people travel on the Interstate and commit crimes through several states.
 
Increasingly, law enforcement officers also have to worry about threats of litigation, according to Darlington Police Chief Danny Watson.
 
“We record and video everything we do so we don’t have to worry about someone saying we did something,” said Watson, who has been with the department for 20 years, and has served as chief for the past two. “We defend everything we do because we have to. We live in a litigation society.”

The Darlington Police Department equips officers with on-person camera to document events, actions and statements made by victims, witnesses and defendants. 
 
Buck said he constantly battles the “us vs. them” mentality in police work. This requires officers to work hard to keep open lines of communication with all segments of the community, said Buck, who has been chief since 2005 and has spent his whole career—more than 22 years—with the Town of Irmo.
 
Policing typically is a local matter, but social media and the Internet have created opportunities for local issues to become global news, Buck said. He cited a recent incident involving an officer who had to take deadly force against a dog. There was a lot of controversy surrounding why it happened and whether it was called for—not only from local residents but also from people around the world. Buck said he personally handled scores of phone calls and explained the situation to each caller. These are the times when communication skills come in handy.
 
“It’s difficult to squash misinformation and put out accurate information unless you have those bridges of communication,” Buck said.
 
Another current challenge in law enforcement is finding qualified candidates for the job, according to Green. Today’s police candidates need to be well rounded to handle the different situations that are thrown at them. They must have experience with computer technology, great communication skills, and the ability to recognize the differences in other cultural backgrounds, Green said. Many college graduates are bypassing the law enforcement field for better paying jobs, making recruitment difficult.
 
Plus, each municipality deals with its own unique set of hurdles. The Town of Lexington is struggling with tremendous growth, Green said. With growth comes traffic congestion problems, an increase in property crime, and the issue of the police department trying to keep pace with the size of the population.
 
Dixon faces the specific challenges of policing a college town. With a transient population, Clemson officers must find a balance between “letting the students do what students do” while not offending year-round residents, he said.
 
Dixon said he knows that, as a college town, they will not be able to stop the issues of alcohol use, but he’d like to stop the alcohol abuse.
 
“I’d love to be able to know I changed behaviors-that there was greater responsibility in the way we celebrate the college life,” he said.
 
The focus in Irmo is maintaining quality of life for its residents. What once was a small town with upper-middle class residents has grown larger with more middle-class residents, Buck said.
 
“It makes us a stronger town with a broader sense of experience,” Buck said. “We’ve had to evolve as a police department, to maintain that sense of community as the demographics change.”
 
Despite the challenges and risks, the police chiefs agreed that law enforcement is a deeply rewarding career. Avery enjoys helping others, especially victims of crime. Green is proud to make a difference and solve problems in the community.
 
Swindler said he’s seen the difference law enforcement can make in people’s lives and he hopes to serve as a role model for young people. He said many young men grow up without fathers or positive male figures in their lives and he hopes that his example and his presence in the community will show them how to behave responsibly.
 
Dixon said he feels rewarded simply by being in his position.
 
“I feel blessed that we’re a transient community, but we have 100 different nationalities in Clemson,” he said. “I can learn about nationalities and cultures all over the world just by staying in Clemson.”
 
And protecting all those individuals is of utmost importance, Dixon added.
 
“We have parents who send their children here from all across the world. Their parents expect these young men and women to be in a safe environment. And we have a responsibility to do the same thing for those who are here year-round,” he said. “I don’t think public safety is something that can be cut or toyed with. We need to do everything we can possibly do to make the City of Clemson the safest municipality possible.”
 
Buck said all municipalities have a fundamental responsibility to provide law enforcement for their communities.
 
“One of the very earliest things people did when they came together as a society was protect each other,” Buck said. “We’re vested in this community. Our job—at a very elemental level—is to protect our fellow man. The most important thing a city can do is look out for its own.”
 
For Watson, safety is intrinsically linked to a high quality of life for residents.
 
“I’ll walk through any neighborhood in Darlington at any time,” Watson said. “You should not be afraid to walk down your street.”
 
Indeed, providing public safety should be the number one priority for a town or city, Green said. A municipality that does not provide adequate public safety will not flourish and will be on the path of dying, he said. Swindler agreed, noting that public safety sets the tone for everything else in a community.
 
“If you don’t have a safe city, why would businesses want to come there? Why would developers want to build good, safe communities for people to live in? Everything is based around that,” Swindler concluded.