It's 'Back to the basics' for Lexington County Sheriff-elect Jay Koon
LEXINGTON COUNTY, SC (WIS) - Lexington County's newly elected sheriff takes over an agency still in transition -- one many agree has been well run by veteran Midlands lawman and former Assistant Sheriff Lewis McCarty after the abrupt departure of longtime leader James Metts last June.
A few days ago, Sheriff-elect Jay Koon sat down with us for a wide-ranging interview about Koon's new vision for county law enforcement.
"I'm a stakeholder in this community," Koon said. "Me and my family have grown up here and I genuinely care about the citizens of this county. But I also care about the men and women working over here and they were in a unique spot, their most challenging times and I was...somebody had to step up and do this and I felt that I wanted to do that."
At age 42, the former Eagle Scout has spent more than half his life in law enforcement. Twenty of those years at the Lexington Police Department, ending his time there with the rank of Assistant Chief. But in the wake of the Metts scandal, Koon also had an unusual opportunity to gain a first-hand understanding of what was happening internally at the sheriff's department.
For several months, he was able to step away from his regular job to become part of a transition team helping interim Sheriff Lewis McCarty stabilize the agency.
Koon says it was McCarty's idea to include him in that effort.
"Working right down the street for 20 years, you knew about the department but you didn't really know the department until you get on the inside," Koon said. "I think of it as five months of me getting in here and seeing the day to day operations and helping out, seeing what each person brought to the table."
The experience might have helped Koon's campaign.
Giving him an endorsement from the well-respected McCarty, a valuable talking point Koon's GOP primary opponents did not have, along with votes from sheriff's personnel on election day.
"My time here with the men and women of this organization, I think they got behind me," Koon said. "They told their friends and family and I think that was huge."
Koon won the primary with 58 percent of the vote. About 16 percent of Lexington County's registered voters turned out for the election.
No Democratic candidates ran against Koon in the general election. His only opposition would have come through write-in votes.
Now he begins to re-shape the department.
"I can't be James Metts," Koon said. "I can't be Lewis McCarty. I've got to be my own guy. I'm focused on good relationships with the community. We're going to get back in the community and build relationships. You can't have a cookie cutter program for everybody. This county is very diverse and we've got to get into each community and talk to the leadership and the citizens in that community and tailor our law enforcement to reach their needs. We've got to get back to the basics of law enforcement. We've got to answer these calls for service in a timely manner."
Koon says he will try to increase minority representation on his roughly 500 member force, figure out a way to begin equipping deputies with body cameras and further cement what he says are already sound relationships with other county, state, and federal law enforcement.
He plans to continue the department's oversight of the Lexington County Detention Center.
Most of the state's sheriffs also run jails, an arrangement that has at times, led to criminal charges against some of those sheriffs.
Koon says he knows he has work to do to repair public confidence in Lexington County.
"What I'm going to do is surround myself with trusted colleagues that I can say, hey look, if you see me and I'm running off course, pick up the phone and call me. Make me accountable," Koon said.
It will take time for Koon to become as familiar to the Midlands as his predecessors, but he also says don't expect him to stick around for generations. Metts held the office for more than four decades.
"No, sir. I answered that at one of the forums," Koon said. "I said I can guarantee you, I won't have 42 years. That's all I can guarantee you."
The new sheriff responded to all our questions, but said at the start of our interview he did not want to discuss possible personnel changes right now.
Koon is scheduled to be sworn in on Friday at 3 p.m. in the main courtroom on the second floor of the old Lexington County Courthouse.
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