Sheriff Al Cannon, left; Kristin Graziano, right | Photos by Ruta Smith

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon has never had a general election opponent, despite being in office since 1988. But in 2020, with protesters fed up with police violence filing through the county jail named for him, Cannon drew a challenge from one of his own deputies: Kristin Graziano, who says it’s time for a change in leadership and policies.

Cannon said some changes are already underway as he seeks his ninth term.

The sheriff said his office has taken a look inside its own walls for potential changes, as calls for criminal justice reforms grow louder, with help from a $5 million MacArthur Foundation grant to fund a multi-year collaborative review now underway as the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC).

As one of 11 law enforcement agencies nationwide to receive the grant, Cannon said the review spurred changes under his watch to minimize “potential flashpoints” between police and the public. He said the CJCC report shows the efforts are working, with marijuana charges reduced 48 percent from 2014 to 2019. Cannon said deputies have stopped using the smell of marijuana as probable cause for car searches, have stopped automatically asking for permission to search vehicles and are no longer making traffic stops for equipment violations.

“We are constantly looking to change in ways that we think are appropriate,” Cannon said.

Relocating from Charlottesville in 2002, Graziano worked for the sheriff’s office with varying roles in the county’s anti-terrorism taskforce and marine patrol and as a school resource officer. In March, Graziano said she was effectively fired when higher-ups caught wind of her potential challenge. Cannon said she was put on leave.

As Cannon points to the CJCC for policing reforms, Graziano said the sheriff should not need a grant to find reforms that could already be implemented.

“That $5 million was not well spent,” she said. “I think that what it did is tell us something we already knew when we already have the ability to not lock people up for minor drug charges or minor offenses period.”

Routine interactions between police and Black Americans, sometimes ending with tragic consequences, have been at the heart of protests in Charleston and elsewhere, intensifying since the May death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A June 2 letter from the American Civil Liberties Union sent to Cannon and other Charleston-area agencies questioned police tactics in the arrest of dozens of protesters demonstrating downtown as a citywide curfew approached on May 31, a day after destructive riots along King Street.

“This response by law enforcement marked a clear, dangerous and counterproductive escalation,” the letter read. Many of the local charges have since been dropped.

Cannon defended the arrests and the use of gas and projectiles.

“Those are instruments law enforcement uses to disperse groups that are subject to doing things worse,” he said, adding protesters were stopped before things got heated. “It could have been a repeat of the night before.”

Cannon said law enforcement was caught off guard by the May 30 riots and speculated that outside groups may have had a hand in organizing the destruction of property.

“In retrospect, that looks to have been a lot more organized than just a spontaneous [event],” Cannon said. Local events may even have had ties, he said, to left-wing militant anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter organizations — “well-funded” by the likes of billionaire liberal George Soros, who figures prominently in conservative narratives about liberal movements.

Graziano said law enforcement can learn from protests like the ones in Charleston.

“We are our own worst enemies when it comes to admitting that we don’t always get it right and thinking we know the answer to everything because we don’t,” she said. “I think it’s an exciting time for law enforcement if you’re willing to listen and be a part of the solution. If you’re not, it’s probably gonna be the worst part of your career.” 

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated that Kristin Graziano moved to Charleston in 2008, not 2002. We regret the error.

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