Beaufort Co. Sheriff responds to NAACP letter claiming policing disparities

Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 4:49 AM EDT
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BEAUFORT COUNTY, S.C. (WTOC) - Fact-checking a controversial claim: a local sheriff’s office accused of racial profiling.

Earlier this month, the NAACP accused the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office of targeting Black people and of unequal hiring practices.

The NAACP’s letter was sent to us just days before the sheriff himself was re-elected. And for the first time, we’re hearing from the sheriff himself.

The sheriff’s office emphatically denies these allegations.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner insists that the arrest data does not tell the full story and the numbers are being twisted, to fit a narrative. The NAACP argues the numbers don’t lie.

On May 17, the NAACP sent a letter to the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, accusing them of racial profiling and improper hiring practices.

Two weeks later, the department responded, denying both accusations.

The NAACP cited data requested from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office from January 2016 to May 2021. Those numbers show that Black people accounted for nearly 40-percent of all citations, but only 18-percent of the county’s population.

That’s according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate.

Sheriff Tanner says those numbers don’t tell the whole story

“Don’t just look at numbers. Look at reports and calls for service. And then look at how those reports and calls for service and arrests are handled. That’s where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Tanner added that while they oversee the entire county, that doesn’t mean they patrol the entire county.

“The majority of our time is spent in the unincorporated parts of Beaufort County, because those areas have our patrol as their primary.”

Tanner adds 75-percent of the time, people call them for help.

So, we looked-through traffic stop data on the Sheriff’s website.

From January of last year through April of this year, deputies issued 2,328 citations for white drivers, and 2,099 for Black drivers.

The numbers also show white drivers got more warnings. During that 16-month period, white drivers received 5,946 warnings, while Black drivers received 3,706.

NAACP attorney Anson Asaka says he finds that troubling.

“It raises concerns that some are receiving a warning as opposed to a citation. I think that shows more disparity. It shows what we’ve been talking about,” said Asaka.

Sheriff Tanner says, that’s not the case.

“There’s no correlation to that. We do not dictate to our officers at any time that, ‘this offense requires a citation, and this offense you can give a warning.’ It’s officer discretion,” said Sheriff Tanner.

The NAACP says the data it requested also shows officers used force more often on Black people, 55 times, than white people, 19 times.

Sheriff Tanner says his officers use force less than 1-percent of the time, that they take each case very seriously, and they should be looked at individually.

Ansaka says, that explanation isn’t good enough for them.

“How can they explain this away? What kind of non-discriminatory basis can they possibly put forth for these stark differences,” asked Asaka.

The NAACP also accused the Sheriff’s Office of unequal hiring practices, and of having an all-white command staff.

The Sheriff’s Office’s website shows three of the 27 people in leadership roles within the department are minorities.

The NAACP says they want to see the agency hire more minorities. Sheriff Tanner argues the race of his employees shouldn’t matter.

“What’s relevant is how we respond to calls for service, and how we treat our citizens, regardless of race,” said Sheriff Tanner.

The NAACP and the sheriff’s office have not met since all of this came out.

The association told WTOC they are, “disappointed” with the department’s response.

We’ll let you know if that changes.

The NAACP told WTOC they gave the sheriff’s office specific guidance on how they can improve their agency’s practices.

They are:

  • Improving diversity within the department.
  • Improving training for officers.
  • Creating a citizens review board to review policing practices.

The sheriff told WTOC they already have these practices in-place.

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