Kristin Graziano was elected sheriff of Charleston County, South Carolina in November and took office in January. She spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about her career, why she ended her agency’s involvement in the Department of Homeland Security’s 287(g) program, and how she’s managing the threat of COVID in her jail.


Chuck Wexler: Why did you go into law enforcement?

Sheriff Graziano: For me it’s very personal. When I was a teenager, my little sister was kidnapped. She had been missing for about a week, and my family kind of hid it from me, because I was with other family members at the time that it happened. My sister was located by a couple of very vigilant police officers in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she was kidnapped, who were looking for her.

They brought her home, and she was safe, but not unharmed. I remember my sister telling me that when she saw the police car, she knew she would be okay if she made a run for it. She broke away from the guy when the police car pulled into the park where they were. She ran towards them and they identified her right away and got her safely home.

That was my calling to law enforcement. I would do whatever I could to not let any other family go through what we went through then, and what we’re still going through as a family.

I have been in law enforcement since age 21.

Wexler: What are your goals for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office?

Sheriff Graziano: We’re getting our community back, so that we’re not identified just as cops in the community, but we are the community. We’re trying to bridge the gap between “us vs. them,” be a part of the community, and be problem-solvers. We’re trying to create what everyone wants, which is a safer community with equality in policing and social justice.

Wexler: How have the policing issues around the country over the last year impacted your agency?

Sheriff Graziano: I don’t know any police officer who thinks what happened to George Floyd was a good or normal thing within police procedure. It wasn’t my knee or my officers’ knees on his neck. Nevertheless, it happened, and we are still a reflection of that uniform.

I get tired of people saying it’s the media spinning it up. I ask them how it’s the media spinning it up, because it happened, it’s still happening, and until it stops happening, we’re going to have outrage. And we should.

The death of George Floyd didn’t happen here, but it affected every state in this country and around the world. People are standing up and fighting for what is right, which is equality in policing and social justice for all people. It doesn’t matter if it happened somewhere else, because it affects us all.

We need to have checks and balances and accountability. We need avenues for people who see something to not only say something, but also do something. We have to create that environment by changing our culture from what we used to be to what we want to be. That’s what we’re doing and will continue to do.

I think there’s an excitement in police work now. I think it’s a good time to be a cop, not a bad time, because change is happening. I think everyone who comes into this line of work today is a part of that, and is a change agent. And that is much needed. I don’t think we’re reforming so much as we’re modernizing.

Wexler: Do you still have demonstrations occurring in Charleston County?

Sheriff Graziano: We have demonstrations every weekend. We engage with those folks. I understand what they’re trying to bring attention to. And it’s working. It’s not something we’re worried about, because we have a dialogue with them.

A lot of the demonstrations these days are about social justice issues related to issues like housing and transportation.  It’s also about monuments and statues that represent, in many people’s opinion, racism. That will continue to happen until something is done.

Wexler: Are you having any difficulties with recruiting or retention?

Sheriff Graziano: When I came here two months ago, we had 24 vacancies. Now we’re down to 14. We’re probably going to fill every vacancy by the end of April.

We’re actively recruiting people, and I’m getting some who are coming from other agencies and want to be part of our change. The message I’m giving those recruits is to come to this agency and be the change they want to see. We only have 303 sworn deputy sheriffs to cover 1,100 square miles, so we’re fairly spread out. But I encourage them to get into the community and be part of the community. And that’s why we’ve created these recruitment campaigns, because we want our agency to be reflective of the community. I think that helps us understand the community we’re in.

Wexler: Why did you end your agency’s participation in the 287(g) program?

Sheriff Graziano:  Several years ago, I was a SWAT leader at the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and was called to send a team over to the airport to do high-risk prisoner transport. They didn’t give us a lot of information, so we only knew that there were some high-risk prisoners coming in and we needed to escort them to the jail. It’s only a five-minute ride from the airport to the jail, so I was thinking it was some big federal drug crime suspects.

But when the plane landed, it was Haitian immigrants. They had flown a couple planeloads of Haitian immigrants from Florida to Charleston County. They were nonviolent, just undocumented people who came in on a boat. I questioned why we were doing that, and I was told it was to offset a problem in the jail’s budget. They were trying to make up money in the budget.

Then it kept happening, and I questioned why we had to participate in that, because it was not a high-risk transport. It was a busload of guys in shackles and chains going five minutes up the road.

The more I looked into this program, the more I understood that it was just an extension of the federal government’s deportation machine. We were a force multiplier for them, and we were receiving $45 per person per day to house a prisoner, but it was costing us just over $100, so we were losing money on this.

After the Haitian undocumented immigrants stopped coming in, ICE started going into the communities and training a bunch of our people at the jails. People were locked up on minor offenses, paying their fines to get out, found to be undocumented, and were deported. We were putting ICE detention holds on them and ripping people out of our community.

It became so bad in the community that people living in the Hispanic communities wouldn’t report crimes or call the police when there was a problem, because they feared us.

It wasn’t us ripping families apart, but it looked like we were doing it, because we’re actually making the arrest.

It created this huge distrust in the community, and it contradicts what we’re trying to do when we talk about building our connections with the community.

So I was adamant on day one that I would not participate in any civil detentions for undocumented people, unless they were accompanied by a criminal warrant. We still house people with violent tendencies who have criminal warrants, and we’re not going to stop doing that. We’re just not going to be an extension of that deportation machine and rip communities apart.

Wexler: How are you mitigating the risk of COVID in your jail during the pandemic?

Sheriff Graziano: When I first learned that I had won election in November, I asked for a meeting with our medical professionals at the jail. They informed me how testing was being done, and I asked them to go through and test every resident of our jail and our staff over a two-day period, and then isolate any positive COVID patients. At that point we only had one or two in the infirmary, and we had some positive-pressure rooms, so it wasn’t really affecting the population at all. Those are people who are showing symptoms when they came in.

We started testing everybody who was arrested prior to coming into the building. We have a sally-port area and a testing station out there. Over the course of those two days, they tested every single one of the over 800 residents as well as the staff. They found 22 positives. They put those 22 people in an isolated wing we’ve created in the detention center. When that happened, we were able to track all these folks. As they came out of isolation and into the general population, we knew they were no longer contagious.

We have managed it very well. We get tested all the time, and we have storage capacity for 1,500 vaccinations. When they release vaccinations to 1B, which is where we fall, we will be able to vaccinate everybody in the detention center and all our staff. The medical staff and some of the detention staff have already been vaccinated. We’re taking every precaution laid out by the CDC, both in our detention center and in our buildings throughout the county.

It took a toll on us during my first two weeks, because more deputies were being exposed and had to be put in isolation. In terms of manpower, it was really tough. But we got through that, and I think most of our people have been vaccinated now. All things considered, we’re doing well, and I look forward to getting those vaccinations in the next couple weeks.

Wexler: Have you faced any vaccine hesitancy among inmates or employees?

Sheriff Graziano: Our detention staff is excellent and has a good rapport with people. There will be some jail residents who don’t want to take the vaccination, and that’s their right. We’re not going to force it on them. We’ll educate them, encourage it, and hope for the best.

As far as the staff, we enabled everyone to sign up to get vaccinated. I understand a lot of them got it, but we haven’t tracked who has already gotten it. As I talk to people, it seems like more than 50% have gotten the vaccination. But we still have people who are not going to do it. All we can do is offer it and hope they take it. 



The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.