The Columbia Metropolitan
Leon Lott on the national stage
By W. Thomas Smith, Jr.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lawson Lott, Jr., made history this year — not only for himself but, as he is quick to point out, the nearly 900-employee Richland County Sheriff’s Department he leads, the communities RCSD serves, and more broadly the state of the South Carolina.
In June, Sheriff Lott was named National Sheriff of the Year 2021 by the National Sheriffs’ Association. A month later, he was awarded South Carolina Sheriff of the Year 2021 by the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association. The reasons were and are myriad: everything from RCSD’s high-tech innovations to in-house programs that have served as models for other law enforcement agencies nationwide to robust community outreach efforts within Richland County, and so much more.
The National Sheriff of the Year award, officially the NSA Ferris E. Lucas Award for Sheriff of the Year, was a first for Lott and the state of South Carolina. Until this year, no sheriff from the Palmetto State had ever received the award. Additionally, this is the second time Lott has been named South Carolina Sheriff of the Year; he first received the lofty award in 2005.
“Two such awards within the span of two months is tremendously rewarding,” says Lott. “Make no mistake, though — these two awards are not nearly as much about me as they are about the department, the communities we serve, and the state.”
As if the two personal awards were not enough, in late July Sheriff Lott and RCSD were jointly presented the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Extraordinary Employer Support Award from the U.S. Department of Defense. The ESGR Extraordinary Employer Support Award recognizes previous recipients of the Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, which RCSD received in 2013. Only 280 employers nationwide have received an ESGR Freedom Award since the award’s inception in 1996. Freedom Award winners are selected annually from approximately 3,000-plus nominations from across the nation. As such, RCSD is the first and only recipient of the Defense Department award in South Carolina, another first for the Palmetto State.
It’s all a result of hard work on the part of RCSD deputies and other employees and a culture of excellence that permeates every section, division, and jurisdictional region within the department, says Lott.
“It also reflects the fact that RCSD has the best command climate in the nation,” says retired U.S. Army Col. Kevin Shwedo, the current civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army and the executive director of the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles. “Command climate is a combination of organizational culture established and enforced from the leadership and a desire for excellence in the ranks.”
That command climate, of course, begins with Lott, who has spent 46 years in law enforcement, a quarter century of that time as the seven-times elected sheriff of Richland County.
Born in Aiken in 1953, Lott was the typical all-American boy. “I lived for sports — football and baseball — and also rabbit hunting, bird hunting, and fishing,” says Lott, who described his earliest hunting excursions as a boy armed with a BB gun who bagged all manner of birds. “I was taught you don’t kill anything you don’t eat. I’d shoot sparrows and blackbirds, then clean them, and my mama would cook them for me.”
Lott spent much of his childhood on his grandfather’s farm near the tiny town of Vaucluse in the Horse Creek Valley just outside of Aiken, where, when he was not hunting or throwing a ball, he milked cows, tended a garden, and generally helped his parents and grandparents do whatever needed to be done. Considered a responsible boy, Lott got his first shotgun, a Mossberg .410 bolt-action, for Christmas when he was 10 years old. “I still have that shotgun,” he says. “It’s the one McKenzie [his youngest daughter] learned to shoot.”
The following Christmas in 1964, Lott received a King James version of the Bible. He still has that treasured gift, too. In fact, that Bible is the very one he has used for his seven swearing-in ceremonies as sheriff since 1997.
Christmases were always a big deal for the Lott family, he says. “They still are. Then and now we’ve always had huge Christmases with a lot of family and lots of presents.”
Lott’s father’s family has deep South Carolina roots, but his mother’s family was from Chicago. “So every summer we’d go to Chicago, and while there we’d attend as many Chicago White Sox games as possible,” says Lott. “I became a huge White Sox fan. Still am.”
As a teenager, Lott played wide receiver on the Aiken High School football team and pitcher on the Aiken High School baseball team. He first learned to drive a tractor, then his dad’s pickup truck. His first car was the family’s Ford Galaxy 500, which was passed down to him. “My first real car was a turquoise 1968 Mustang, later a green 1970 Pontiac Formula 400,” he says.
It was during Lott’s high school years that the Vietnam War was raging, and he wanted to serve his country. “My plan after high school was to join the Marine Corps,” says Lott. “After a few years in the Marines, I would go to college and then I would become a cop.”
That plan changed when a high school girlfriend learned Lott was going into the Marines. “She had lost a brother in Vietnam, and when I told her I was going into the Marines, she broke down and wept,” Lott says. “So I didn’t do it, and her reaction to my initial decision probably saved my life.”
He adds, “I lost friends who were older than I in Vietnam. I also lost friends to drugs who either died or went to prison during that period of time.” Lott graduated from high school in 1971, and entered the University of South Carolina Aiken, where he pitched for the college’s baseball team.