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SC’s 1st elected female sheriff vows to reshape agency

November 4, 2020 GMT
FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2020 photo, Kristin Graziano, the Democratic Party candidate for sheriff, applauds while attending Noche De Cine con Norsan Media at Patriots Point in South Carolina. Graziano said Tuesday, Oct.27, she tested positive for the virus and was going to run her campaign in isolation at home until she tests negative again. (Lauren Petracca/The Post And Courier via AP)
FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2020 photo, Kristin Graziano, the Democratic Party candidate for sheriff, applauds while attending Noche De Cine con Norsan Media at Patriots Point in South Carolina. Graziano said Tuesday, Oct.27, she tested positive for the virus and was going to run her campaign in isolation at home until she tests negative again. (Lauren Petracca/The Post And Courier via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s first elected female sheriff, Kristin Graziano, is used to being the only woman in the room, at the table and in the police car.

But she hopes her recent win — and her vision for reshaping one of the largest local law enforcement agencies in the state — will open doors for women and girls.

Graziano, a Democrat and deputy sheriff in Charleston County, won over a majority of voters in the county on Election Day, defeating her boss and 32-year Republican incumbent Al Cannon, whose record has been closely scrutinized as activists have raised calls for police reform in recent months.

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Graziano has promised a slew of reforms to build community trust and diversify the 900-person department, not just by sex but also by race, in a county where more than a quarter of residents are Black. Charleston’s long legacy of racial injustice, from the American colonies’ first slave patrol to the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston by a white police officer in 2015, factor into Graziano’s platform.

The veteran officer cites as a turning point in her campaign the police killing in May of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she told The Associated Press on Wednesday. Graziano had previously criticized Cannon for using “aggressive and provoking tactics” against peaceful protesters responding to Floyd’s death over the summer.

“It’s irresponsible for us not to take responsibility and address inequities,” Graziano said. “That’s what I believed before it happened, and that’s what I believe to this day.”

Graziano, 53, joins several other women elected to top justice system positions in Charleston: solicitor Scarlett Wilson, an incumbent who first secured the seat for top prosecutor of Charleston and Berkeley counties in 2008; and Bobbi Jo O’Neal, a deputy coroner who won after retired coroner Rae Wooten endorsed her this year. There’s also Julie Armstrong, the longtime county clerk of court.

The courthouse slate remains unusual in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. It prompted the newly elected O’Neal to reflect on the nature and challenges of the coroner’s office, where women have held the top job for years and the majority of investigators are female.

The job — looking into suspicious and sudden deaths while also having to talk with grieving family members — lends itself to women, O’Neal said: “They can be very strong investigators, but during that moment of grief, they also have a bit of a softer edge.”

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Jarrod Bruder of the state sheriff’s association said several more women ran for sheriff across the state this year than in prior elections. Whether that’s reflective of growing diversity among police ranks or a larger cultural shift among voters, Bruder is unsure.

Just a handful of women have served as interim sheriffs in South Carolina’s history, mostly through the antiquated practice of appointing politicians’ widows to complete their terms.

In 1935, Mae Gasque became the first woman to take on the role after her husband, the Marion County sheriff, died in a car accident. Gasque left arrests up to her two male deputies, she later told the Florence Morning News, though she occasionally served papers.

More recently, there was Barbara Walters, appointed after the sitting Orangeburg sheriff died a week short of his 54th birthday in 2010. Walters, who passed away five years later, investigated homicides and child abuse, became the first woman in the state to be certified by the FBI as a crisis negotiator, and did hair and makeup for beauty pageants on the side, her obituary reads.

Graziano, who started at the Charleston office in 2002 and most recently worked on the SWAT team, hopes to mark her own tenure by lifting up other women in the field.

“Women are good listeners, they’re good leaders,” she said. “We lead with empathy and understanding.”

Cannon placed Graziano on unpaid leave in February, shortly after he learned she was planning to run against him. In the following months, Graziano positioned herself as a reformer on policing issues. She has said she will end a federal partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ask the county council to trim the department’s $80 million budget and ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

Cannon told reporters he had called Graziano to concede Wednesday morning. Though Graziano missed Cannon’s call — she was out on a run, she said — she knows there will be growing pains as she takes the helm of the agency Cannon has shaped over the past three decades.

“We’re going to do the work that the people put me in office to do,” Graziano said. “It’s their office.”

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Michelle Liu is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.