New Charleston County Sheriff Makes Changes After Making History

Jan 22, 2021

Sitting in the room where her former boss put her on administrative leave nearly a year ago, Charleston's first new sheriff in 32 years reaches down and pulls  up her colorful Ruth Bader Ginsburg socks beneath her grey uniform.

"If it wasn't for Ruth Bader Ginsburg or the people who came before me, to allow me to do that, it wouldn't have happened," says Sheriff Kristin Graziano.

The First

The 53-year-old is the first woman to serve as a county sheriff in South Carolina.  She's also been recognized nationally as one of two openly gay women elected sheriff in states Donald Trump won, and as one of only a handful of Democrats who beat incumbent Republican sheriffs while promising to cut ties with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

She kept that promise day one.

"Our Latino community has been targeted, racially profiled and we are responsible largely here in Charleston County particularly in the detention center," she told a crowd in Charleston on January 5, her first day on the job. 

"That ends with me."

The Work

The new sheriff ended a voluntary agreement with federal authorities.  The 287 (g) agreement, as it's called, relies on local deputies to help ICE deport immigrants.

Those opposed say it's costly.  For Charleston County taxpayers, Sheriff Graziano estimates the price at roughly $4 million a year.  What's more, she says the agreement rarely leads to the arrest of violent criminals and creates distrust in minority communities.

Immigration attorney Nina Richards has seen that distrust firsthand.

"I can't recall the number of times I've had men and women call my office in the midst of a domestic violence incident or after an armed assault, asking if it's alright to call police," she says.

Sheriff Graziano wants to rebuild that trust.  She says she was met with threats of tougher federal immigration enforcement when she left the ICE agreement.  It only reinforced, she says, she'd made the right decision.

Surrounded by supporters and staff, Sheriff Graziano signs a document ending a voluntary agreement with federal authorities that relies on local deputies to help deport immigrants.
Credit Victoria Hansen

She Won't back down

Graziano doesn't back down.

When her then boss, Sheriff Al Cannon, learned she was considering running against him, she was put on administrative leave.

"I was standing in this very room and I remember just looking out the window and thinking I can't wait to be back."

She knew if she lost, her decades long career in law enforcement was likely over.

Her Career

Graziano was first drawn to police work as a teenager in Charlottesville, Va. when two officers rescued her kidnapped little sister.  She later went on to serve beside them.  Most recently she worked as the only woman on Charleston County's SWAT.

Looking back, she says being sidelined by the sheriff only motivated her, as did the support of her wife and two college-aged sons.  She also held a strong belief; people want changes.

"What happened to George Floyd should have never happened," says Sheriff Graziano.  "Somebody should have intervened, and they didn't."

The Changes

Just weeks into her tenure, Sheriff Graziano has introduced a "duty to intervene" policy.  She's pushing for police reform in a community that's endured racial violence and she's adamant about diversity.

"Communities aren't talking to us if we don't look like them," she says.

Activists like Pastor Thomas Dixon are hopeful.

"I'm not going to take away from the 32 years that the previous sheriff had, but it's a new day," says Pastor Dixon.

He insists young people especially helped elect Sheriff Graziano.

"They were spreading the word.  Kristin Graziano is the new vision; the one who's going to represent us all."

Sheriff Graziano poses for a picture with community activist Pastor Thomas Dixon.
Credit Victoria Hansen


The LGBTQ community also wants inclusion.  Chase Glenn, the Executive Director of the Alliance for Full Acceptance knows, however, having an openly gay sheriff won't cure discrimination.

"But when you see someone who looks like you and has a life that may look like your life, it gives you just a little boost of hope," Glenn says.  "Maybe things are getting better."

Sheriff Graziano is grateful for her supporters and well aware of her detractors.  Deputies have left.  She let two long-time commanders go.  But she believes eventually she will win critics over.

Looking down again at those Notorious RBG socks, she remembers one of the late Supreme Court justice's quotes:   "Fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you."

As sheriff, she hopes to pave the way for more women and be the change she believes people want.

"Let’s use this as a steppingstone," she says. " We got a long way to go."