Lately, I have been asked, “What would you have done differently?” regarding the law enforcement response to the protests after George Floyd’s death.
My answer is pretty simple: I would’ve walked with the protesters.
My biggest challenge, once elected as the next sheriff of Charleston County, will be changing the organizational culture that has caused us to get to this place. Our men and women in uniform, most of whom are kind and decent people, are hurting too. They want to have a voice, but they do not.
What is most troubling is that the leaders at the top are just now realizing there is a problem.
In 2014, I contemplated hanging up my uniform. I knew that I could not speak out on what I was seeing, and silent protests weren’t effective. I loved serving others, but I no longer enjoyed wearing a badge.
My re-awakening came that summer on Seabrook Island. I was patrolling the beach off duty when I saw a man floating out past a sandbar. I saw others trying to swim toward him, but all of them seemed to be drifting out to sea.
I radioed my dispatcher and asked for help. I removed my sidearm and gear and ran into the water, commandeering a nearby boogie board. With the help of a paddle boarder, we made it quickly to the three men, one laying limp and unconscious with this head barely above the water.
I ordered the men to help me get the unconscious swimmer onto the paddle board, where I began to perform CPR amid the rocking waves. I remember thinking, “We cannot tip over, or I’ll lose him.” I put my head on his chest and embraced this still, blue figure on the board as we glided into shallow water. When we arrived, medics performed lifesaving procedures. I wrapped my arms around his wife, and we dropped to our knees and prayed. He survived.
That day renewed my sense of purpose and gave me strength to keep moving forward.
On May 25, another black man died at the hands of abusive police. Watching the video of Floyd, as he gasped for air and called out to his dead mother, I couldn’t take it. I ran outside my house and vomited. It physically rocked me to my core.
I sensed a shift in my community in the days after the murder. My black brothers and sisters were in tremendous pain. I saw it in their eyes at my weekly volunteering shift at a food distribution center. As we worked, there was little laughter as there had been in previous weeks. Their pain was palpable.
That day I called a friend who happens to be black and a pastor in the community. We talked for an hour, I needed to know what else I could do. He said, “Don’t remain silent.”
This time is different, and it’s up to people who look like me to make changes in our privileged lives. It is our job to do the self-reflection to repair the damage that we have caused.
Every law enforcement officer should hang up their badge if they condone aggressive and punitive policing. Our community deserves better, and our citizens demand better. This is not the time to lead with a gun, a baton or tear gas. Now is the time to lead with the heart and soul.
When I am elected sheriff, I will open up the sheriff’s office to independent audits, to examine its history of policing practices and spending; restructure the department to remove waste at the top and recruit a more diverse field of deputies; involve the community more; sever an agreement to house federal immigration detainees; and reform our juvenile justice system. There is so much work to do.
Leadership is born from connection and communication, which is something that is lacking from the top ranks of the sheriff’s office. I am prepared to make the necessary changes so we can heal and grow. I’m ready to put that badge back on and get to work.
Graziano served as a Charleston County sheriff’s deputy for 18 years and is the Democratic nominee for Charleston County sheriff.
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