Sheriff Will Lewis sets his sights on gangs, online predators

A New Mission

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As sheriff, Will Lewis plans to target Greenville County's growing gang and sexual predator populations and more. Photo by Will Crooks.

Greenville County has a new sheriff, and he wants to make changes to how things have traditionally been done.

Will Lewis, a 40-year-old Simpsonville resident and former sheriff’s deputy, upset incumbent Steve Loftis in a primary runoff last June and later won over 98 percent of voters to defeat write-in candidate Paul Guy in the Nov. 8 general election.

“It’s been very humbling,” Lewis said. “The good Lord has given me this opportunity to be a servant leader for this community, and I plan on invoking things I’ve learned from law enforcement and military.”

Lewis plans to make several changes within the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office. That includes streamlining the command staff, which the new sheriff claims was too large.

“The direction in which the Sheriff’s Office is moving is a paradigm shift. We’re going to be advancing law enforcement, and I need those leadership positions filled by people who buy into my ideas,” he said.

Lewis added that he’s offered previous command staff members various jobs within the agency and that no one has declined yet. He would not disclose how many previous command staff members were affected during the restructuring.

He did, however, add that no one above the rank of captain had been moved and that his command staff will include Chief Deputy John Eldridge, who previously served the agency as assistant sheriff under Loftis.

Targeting Gangs

 

One of the items at the top of Lewis’ to-do list: addressing Greenville County’s growing gang problem. It’s a problem that the agency has been aware of for some time.

“There are pockets in every area of the county,” said Master Deputy Dave Whitlock, who oversees the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office gang investigation unit.

He added that there are between 50 and 60 gangs throughout the county, including national gangs such as the Bloods, Crips and Folk Nation and homegrown neighborhood gangs, some named after the area in which they are based and others that are unnamed.

Police say confirmed and self-professed gang member Deontea Mackey gunned down Greenville Police Officer Allen Jacobs on March 18 as the officer tried to question the 17-year-old convicted felon about trying to acquire a weapon.

Numbers are hard to come by, but Whitlock puts the number of gang members in the hundreds. Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins, who started fighting gangs in South Carolina in 2005 as South Carolina’s U.S. Attorney, said there could be up to 900 gang members in Greenville County.

Wilkins said it’s difficult to say how much of Greenville County’s crime is tied to gangs.

“We prosecute the underlying violent crime,” he said. “It’s not against the law to walk around saying you’re a member of the Bloods or the Hell’s Angels, just like it’s not against the law to say you’re a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Lewis plans to create a social media task force that focuses on gang-related crimes.

Social media monitoring allows law enforcement to constantly target, track and archive information posted on social media from millions of people. It can be used by police to monitor and log posts on popular sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, regarding everything from protests to potential threats.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the International Association of Police, more than 300 law enforcement agencies across the country currently use social media for listening or monitoring, while more than 400 use it for intelligence purposes.

Photo by Will Crooks.

 

“Bad guys can’t stop talking about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it,” Lewis said. “Gang members are notorious for that. They take pictures of cash and dope and then post in on their social media profiles. That’s public information once it hits the social feeds.”

“We’re going to capture indicators to identify these people and hopefully prevent these crimes from occurring,” he added.

Lewis said the Sheriff’s Office hasn’t purchased social media monitoring software yet, but that the agency is currently “weighing several options.” He added that the agency will likely use federal grants and its Drug Seizure Asset Fund to purchase the technology.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, about 151 counties, cities and law enforcement agencies across the country have spent up to $200,000 to purchase social media monitoring technology.

But despite its enthusiastic adoption by law enforcement agencies, only a small number of agencies have publicly available policies on how they use the software, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

“We have to ensure that these tools are being used in a manner consistent with civil liberties, civil rights and constitutional values,” says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, in a statement. “It is critical that elected leaders and police departments be transparent about the social media monitoring services they use, how taxpayer money is spent and what happens to the data.”

Lewis said social media monitoring will only be used for criminal suspects, not civilians. The new sheriff added that he’s willing to hold public forums to address concerns about privacy and that the agency is going to draft a publically available policy detailing its use of social media monitoring once the task force is fully formed.

The social media task force will be working closely with a full-time gang investigation unit that Lewis is hoping to have up and running before February.

“The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t really had a dedicated gang unit. It’s been used for quick hits. Some of the deputies would get together during the summer and do 60 days of gang operations, but that’s just not enough. We really need people handling this problem every day of the week,” he said.

Lewis added that the he hopes to see at least 10 or more investigators working for the unit.

Predators Become Prey 

 

For Lewis, who has three children of his own, curbing online child predators is another one of his top priorities as sheriff. He is currently developing an Internet Crimes Against Children Unit (ICAC) for Greenville County.

“ICAC is going to be responsible for hunting down child predators and resolving this growing problem,” Lewis said. “This is a trend that’s happening across the country. South Carolina and Greenville County aren’t immune to it.”

In 2015, Greenville County had the largest number of sexual abuse investigations in the state with 47 cases. “We haven’t had investigators dedicated to this problem on a local scale,” Lewis said. “These predators have been able to freely operate in Greenville County without the threat of prosecution. That’s coming to an end.”

Lewis said technology has made it easier for child predators to target and connect with minors online. “Social media and apps aren’t always used with good intentions,” Lewis said. “I feel like it’s gotten a lot worse in recent years as children and adults are both using social media more.”

According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of American teens, ages 13 to 17, use more than one social media site. Facebook remains the most used site with 71 percent of all teens using the site. Half of those teens use Instagram and 3 percent use Snapchat. Photo by Will Crooks.

 

Lewis has dedicated two investigators from the Sheriff’s Office to the ICAC Unit, which will work directly with Greenville County’s Criminal Forensics Unit and the state’s ICAC Task Force, which has been administered by the state Attorney General’s Office since 1998 to curb child predators.

The ICAC Unit will be using social media to combat child predators. They plan to go online and pretend to be minors and connect with potential child predators through various sites and social media apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, according to Lewis.

The unit will also monitor the distribution and use of child pornography by tagging online material. If a person tries to download material that’s been tagged as child pornography, investigators will be able to easily identify the child predator.

Adopt-A-Cop 

 

Much of a Greenville County deputy’s job involves interactions with criminal suspects. Some of those interactions can be deadly, which is why many deputies wear bulletproof vests and other protective equipment.

But what you might not know is that your neighborhood “Officer Friendly” is having to shell out hundreds of dollars to keep themselves safe.

“Greenville County only funds a portion of the cost when a deputy requests a bulletproof vest,” said Lewis, who had to purchase his first bulletproof vest when he joined the Greenwood City Police Department in 1998.

He added, “These young men and women are coming out of the military or college with no money, and they’re having to pay for their portion of lifesaving equipment. It can cost them hundreds of dollars. That’s just ridiculous.”

Lewis is starting an Adopt-A-Cop program to help Greenville County deputies pay for their equipment. The idea is simple: Donors adopt a deputy of their choice for the cost of equipment, and that equipment is then purchased and given to the officer, not the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office.

“The financial resources that someone supplies to a law enforcement officer can offset taxpayer dollars by providing the equipment that deputy needs, minus the vehicle, for daily operations and functions,” Lewis said.

The new program could help build community between law enforcement and the public.

“It creates a sense of personal investment for the deputy and community,” Lewis said. “Our deputies who receive a donation will be responsible for checking in with their providers from time to time.”

“They’ll show up outfitted in their equipment, able to say, ‘This is what you bought me. You fulfilled my dream, my calling,” Lewis added. “I’m now able to stand here equipped with what you bought me and you can see with your own two eyes that I’m here for you and this community.”

A Second Pair of Eyes 

 

Lewis also plans to continue recent efforts to outfit deputies with body cameras.

“These cameras are not going to prevent or resolve every issue; however, it should work as an objective observer for the law enforcement officer and the public,” he said.

Last year, Greenville County Council unanimously agreed that a $135,000 grant from the S.C. Public Safety Coordinating Council would be used to purchase 125 body cameras for the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office. This puts the agency in compliance with the body camera law signed by Gov. Nikki Haley last June following the highly publicized shooting death of Walter Scott by former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager.

The law required roughly 300 state and local law enforcement agencies to adopt body cameras, storage units and policies, which must be approved by the Law Enforcement Training Council. The council specified that agencies don’t have to follow the body camera law until they receive “full funding” from the state.

In an interview with the Greenville Journal last October, Loftis said he didn’t request funding for them in the $42 million Sheriff’s Office budget, because the state said it would pay for them. Last year, the state set aside $3.4 million in grant funding for law enforcement agencies to purchase body cameras and storage equipment. The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office requested $700,000 to outfit 440 deputies.

The Greenville County Sheriff’s Office purchased 125 Panasonic Arbitrator Body Worn Cameras last year. Photo by Panasonic.

In July, the Public Safety Coordinating Council announced that 168 agencies would get partial funding. The $135,000 grant was awarded to the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office on Aug. 1 and approved by the Finance Committee on Oct 10.

On Oct. 28, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office sent out a request for proposals. The agency later purchased Panasonic Arbitrator body cameras, which cost the county $168,000, said Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ryan Flood.

The Sheriff’s Office used funds from its 2016 Justice Assistance Grant to account for the remaining cost. Lewis tried to raise funds for the body cameras through local businesses and investors.

“I had tapped the private sector so that we could have alleviated some of the financial pressure off the taxpayers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to implement that. They went ahead and jumped ahead of me and purchased them,” Lewis said.

He added, “Currently, I have no plans to seek outside funding. As the program continues to grow over time, if funding is available to alleviate spending to the taxpayer, I may reconsider. Ultimately, my goal is to provide the best law enforcement services, including equipment, to the residents of the County of Greenville while using the least amount of taxpayers’ dollars.”

Sgt. Jeff Ward, who oversaw the purchase of the body cameras, said the Sheriff’s Office chose the Panasonic body cameras because they have the same components and storage units as the agency’s in-car cameras.

Last June, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office used $1.9 million in drug seizure money to purchase about 300 Panasonic Arbitrator in-car video systems with a 360-degree camera and a pair of network storage devices with 434 terabytes of storage space.

Lewis considered a different brand of body cameras.

He said footage from the agency’s in-car systems can be obtained through the Freedom of Information of Act. However, footage from the body cameras cannot. Regardless, the footage from the Panasonic body camera is automatically uploaded to the in-car camera system, making it available to the public.

“People aren’t always dressed appropriately when a deputy walks into their house. For example, someone might hear their alarm go off when they’re in the shower and they decided to step out with a towel wrapped around them. The deputy ends up in that person’s home looking for an intruder and their body camera records the person in their towel. That footage can then be legally obtained, because it’s been uploaded to the car,” Lewis said. “That’s a big problem.”

While the 125 body cameras and current in-car systems will remain in service, Lewis is considering purchasing Pro-Vision BC-300 body cameras and storage units for the deputies without body cameras.

“They’re half the price and much more efficient,” Lewis said.

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