Response to Post series from James Flowers

I got this comment over the weekend from James Flowers, Leon Lott’s opponent for the Democratic nomination for Richland County sheriff:

Brad Warthen. You should have reached out to me before writing this article so that you would have actual facts instead of what is written in this article by the civil attorney. First of all, as a SLED agent we investigate CRIMINAL actions. This was a CIVIL deposition. My only purpose is to gather the facts and provide them to the James FlowersSolicitor. What you obviously don’t know is that the Solicitor’s office, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s office reviewed my report and had ZERO issues with the work. The Solicitor’s office made the determination that there was no criminal action on the part of the law enforcement officers not Me or SLED. Also, when 3 certified law enforcement officers that are serving 2 valid warrants have any sort of weapon pointed at them, they should by all means respond with deadly force. A real law enforcement leader stands behind and supports law enforcement officers 100% when they are right. Even if he has to be arrogant to do it. This article is nothing more than a hit piece orchestrated by an overzealous civil attorney who has a different legal standard than law enforcement does in reviewing shootings. I also noticed that you didn’t mention the unflattering second article about your friend Lott. So please do some due diligence prior to your next blog. Thank you. James Flowers.

As it happens, the last person to get on my case for not having contacted him before posting something was… Leon Lott. And he kind of had a point, from his perspective, since the point of the post he called about was to wonder aloud why the sheriff hadn’t done a certain thing. Turns out that he had an answer to the question that he wanted to share.

I will always, always be on the defensive when people say I should have contacted them before posting something. But here’s the thing, folks: This is  a commentary blog, not a primary news source. I read things, and I react to them. And invite you to react to my reactions. On the rare occasions that I have time to go out and cover an event myself, I do so. Look back — you’ll see that’s my M.O. It’s not optimal; I wish I could afford to blog full-time. But WYSIWYG.

As it is, I don’t find time to comment on as many things as I’d like to — not even close to it. I’m very straightforward with you about the basis of my comments, so you can look at what I’m looking at and challenge my conclusions. And your comments, like Mr. Flowers’, get posted as well.

In this case, I spent way more time than I usually spend on a single post because it took so long for me to read that 7,000-word Washington Post article on which it was based. As I said, I’d read that one story and the fourth piece from the series by Radley Balko (more accurately, I skimmed the fourth piece). Now that Mr. Flowers has said Lott looks bad in the second installment of the series, I’ll go read that, and share what I find. I probably won’t have time to read the third piece today, but if you get there ahead of me, please share what you find.

Oh, and I don’t plan to call Leon before sharing what I find in that second installment. The story says what it says, and that’s what I’ll be reacting to — as per usual.

Although if I can find the time later, this subject is interesting enough that I might go above and beyond (in other words, take the kind of time I did back when I got paid to do this) and give both Lott and Flowers a call. But it remains to be seen whether that will be possible between now and next Tuesday’s primary.

Maybe some of my colleagues out there in the community who still get paid to do such reporting will get to it ahead of me. Let’s hope so.

Anyway, I welcome Mr. Flowers to the conversation.

14 thoughts on “Response to Post series from James Flowers

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, I’ve read the 7,200-word second installment. The part of the piece that deals with Leon Lott starts with the subhed “Video ends troubled law enforcement career,” a little more than a third of the way into the lengthy piece.

    I’d quote that whole 900-word section, but I’d probably run afoul of Fair Use. I’ll just quote the part where Lott is questioned about his handling of prior complaints against Ben Fields (the school resource officer he fired last fall over the Spring Valley incident) and the case of Paul Allen Derrick, which is described in the passage:

    Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott says Fields wasn’t disciplined prior to the school incident because he hadn’t done anything wrong. “Those were false accusations,” Lott says. “He was cleared by a judge in one case and a jury in the other.”12688107_151054328609462_1362027917090109376_n

    After the Spring Valley video went public, several students alleged on social media that Fields had a reputation for being rough, including allegations that he had previously slammed other students to the ground. (To be fair, a few students also came to his defense.)

    Gambrell believes the Spring Valley incident finally led to Fields’s firing for one reason: It was captured on video. “Without that video, he’s still a deputy,” Gambrell says. “There’s no question.”

    Here, Lott seems to agree. “The video played a major role in my decision,” he says.

    In an October 2013 incident that also attracted a lot of media attention, another Richland County sheriff’s deputy, Paul Allen Derrick, arrested 23-year-old Brittany Ball at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Columbia, allegedly after Ball refused his advances. According to witnesses, after his exchange with Ball, Derrick — who was off-duty at the time — went out to his truck, retrieved his gun and handcuffs, returned to the restaurant, and placed Ball under arrest. He then slammed her head into a metal table. A man with Ball at the time recorded the incident on his cellphone. When officers from the Columbia Police Department arrived, they interviewed Ball, Derrick, and other witnesses, watched the cellphone video and placed Derrick under arrest.

    Despite the video and witness statements, local media reported that Sheriff Leon Lott still publicly defended Derrick for nearly a week after the incident, claiming that Ball had “resisted arrest” (though it isn’t clear for what crime she was being arrested in the first place). Lott disputes that narrative. “I never defended him. I just said that he has the authority to make an arrest, whether he’s on duty or off.”

    What is clear is the timing: Lott didn’t fire the deputy until after the video was released to the public. In March of last year, Derrick pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and battery….

    By the way, James Flowers is also mentioned in the installment, as lead investigator in another case, but the mention is brief.

    As usual, I urge you to read the whole article. But if you only have time to read the most pertinent parts, I’ve told you where to find them, about 2,800 words in…

    1. Doug Ross

      So what’s your verdict on Sheriff Lott after reading it? Your response to the installment regarding Mr. Flowers was that is was “disturbing”, raising “loud alarms” – disturbing enough to even write a post about it.

      Now that you’ve read Mr. Flowers’ response and the installment about Sheriff Lott, are you still disturbed/alarmed? Do you have any concerns about Sheriff Lott’s behavior (i.e. that it was only video evidence that forced him to fire deputies)?

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, I was trying not to pile on to Mr. Flowers by comparing the two. I was trying to give y’all enough info to decide for yourselves.

      But since you ask… I don’t think it’s great that there had to be video before Leon acted — by his own admission, by the way.

      But no, this isn’t as disturbing as the lead investigator for SLED having no excuse (or declining to offer one) when he is asked why he didn’t follow up when the evidence indicated that what cops had said about a fatal shooting was physically impossible.

      Here’s where Doug insists that Lott’s failure was just as awful. But I’d be lying if I said it looked that way to me. I’d be engaging in what I’m sometimes accused of engaging in: false equivalence.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I heard a rumor this morning that some in the law enforcement community suspect Lott of being Balko’s original source on the series.

        They might think that because while he doesn’t look all that great in a couple of parts of the series, he doesn’t look nearly as bad as others. And the series really shines an unfavorable light on his opponent.

        They also might think that because Lott is the only sheriff in the state who doesn’t bring in SLED to investigate officer-involved shootings, and this series challenges the value of those SLED investigations.

        Finally, they might be suspicious because Lott is directly quoted in the series, and other law enforcement officers are not.

        If I do get to the point of interviewing Flowers and Lott for a followup, I’ll ask Leon about that.

        But I’m not as interested in who started Balko on this course as nonjournalists would be. Who gave the initial tip is less important than the question of whether the story is, in the end, fair and accurate. And that’s for all of us who read it to judge….

      2. Doug Ross

        I don’t have an opinion on either. I am sure there is more information in both cases that is not part of the articles. It’s likely that the reporter had an agenda before he started gathering evidence, otherwise why would he bother? Neither of the situations seems that bad, and after reading Mr. Flowers’ explanation, it seems like he followed the rules and was supported by everyone up the chain from him. If he’s wrong, then everyone who also agreed is wrong. Are you willing to accept that?

        I think the Kershaw County case where it is obvious they lied about the existence of a dashboard camera is much worse. Sadly, what they did is not confined to just law enforcement agencies. Pretty much any FOIA request is met with stonewalling, exaggeration of the cost to produce the information, and even outright lying. I experienced it firsthand when I tried to get some school statistic data out of Richland 2 in 2002. The excuses I was given as to why it couldn’t be produced ranged from absurd to dishonest. And when I went to meet with the person who could produce the information, she made sure to bring in several others to outnumber me. One guy was just there apparently because he was large and thought he would be intimidating but had no clue about what was going on when I asked him a question. This stuff goes on every day across every government function.

        1. Doug Ross

          I’ve lived in Richland County for 26 years and Sheriff Lott has been in that position for twenty of them. From my limited perspective, he’s done a very good job dealing with a district that has probably changed dramatically over the the past two decades. He certainly has done a better job than the Columbia Police Department over that time.

          See, Brad, I can support the government when it does what it is supposed to and doesn’t set mediocrity as the bar. When I get my property tax bills, I never have had a problem with the portion that goes to law enforcement (or fire department or libraries).

          I can only think of two occasions where I didn’t agree with Sheriff Lott’s actions: 1) the hiring of Randy Scott after he left CPD. Seemed to be more of a charitable action than one motivated by hiring the best officers. 2) The arrest of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps for smoking pot seemed more about publicity than protecting the public. Nevermind my belief that nobody should ever be arrested, ticketed, or otherwise harassed about smoking pot, that particular case was overkill and I was SURE there were more important things RCSD could be doing. It also sends a weird message to kids: Look, if you smoke pot you might end up being a world class athlete and multi-millionaire with a smoking hot girlfriend. Sort of deflates the anti-drug hysteria.

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          And allow me to say that I think Doug’s comments are very fair and thoughtful.

          I think you might be right about the handling of Randy Scott — that it was a “charitable action” to a great extent. Maybe not the whole story, but it LOOKED like that was a factor.

          You and I are bound to disagree about Phelps, just as we disagree about marijuana. But the more relevant fact in that case is that LOTT disagrees with you. I’ve heard him defend himself on his handling of that case (before the Columbia Rotary, a sympathetic audience), and I’m convinced that he truly believes the law under which Phelps was charged is one that SHOULD be enforced.

          But in the end, I think we’re in agreement that Leon’s done a good job overall.

          By the way, I had to be convinced of that, just as I had to be convinced by Katrina Shealy.

          Do I ever regret an endorsement? You bet. I regret that we endorsed incumbent Sheriff Allan Sloan when Leon first challenged him.

          Even though we had HUGE qualms about Sloan, dating back to his use of the “N” word in an interview with one of our reporters years earlier, we were even more worried about Leon’s “Miami Vice” reputation as something of a free-wheeling cowboy of a narc. We had trouble seeing him as a level-headed, responsible administrator.

          And yet, its seems that’s just what he turned out to be…

  2. Jeff Mobley

    Now that I’ve read the whole series, I find some of the things revealed pretty troubling.

    Doug says, “It’s likely that the reporter had an agenda before he started gathering evidence, otherwise why would he bother?”

    I think that’s about right. These pieces are under the Opinion section of the WaPo website. Specifically, “The Watch” section is described as “[a] reported opinion blog on civil liberties and the criminal justice system.” And Balko seems to be a writer with a certain established perspective on these issues. So, that’s certainly something to keep in mind.

    Overall, though, I do think Flowers receives harsher criticism in the series than does Lott. And if Lott really was the source for more of the content than just his quotes, then I think that’s worth knowing.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And I appreciate your wanting to know that.

      But this sort of thing takes me back to arguments I used to have in the early 80s with my managing editor, when I was the news editor of the paper in Jackson, TN.

      The M.E., who was a great friend and wordsmith, had a habit of not wanting to follow up on leads that came from interested parties. I understood his gut distaste for doing what he called “taking up the cudgels” for the tipster. But my position was that all that mattered was whether the tip checked out. Source A may have had all kinds of nasty reasons for telling us about X, but ultimately the only thing that concerned me was whether X was true.

      No, you didn’t run X based on Source A’s tip, not by a long shot. You went to see if more reliable sources confirmed it; you went to see whether it was true. THAT was what mattered — you decided what to run based on what you found after you went beyond A and truly checked it out. Check it out, and then if you’ve got a story that stands up without the original tip, you’ve got something worth running.

      And that’s what matters to me in this case. Do the stories hold up? Were they reported fairly? Are the facts not only right, but correctly placed in context?

      The origin of the story, while it might make for an interesting backstory, is less critical.

      Although it can be an interesting mental exercise to look at the final product and try to guess where it all started

      Above, I set out several reasons why an observer might guess Source A was Lott in this case.

      But you know, if you stand back from it, this Phillips guy — the attorney from Rock Hill — seems to be Balko’s most important source throughout. Look at the number of quotes from him, and how much evidence was provided by him (video, photos, depositions, etc.). The more I look at what Balko has, the more I see that he wouldn’t have had much at all without Phillips’ cooperation. Also, the general thrust of the series seems to be the same as the positions Phillips has advocated in court.

      But that doesn’t mean Phillips was Source A. He could just be a gold mine Balko discovered along the way.

      Anyway, that’s just playing a guessing game. I have no idea. And ultimately what matters is, do the stories hold up?

      1. Doug Ross

        And it’s even tougher to get people to even care.

        All that matters is having the most signs or name recognition. I saw this happen firsthand in a local school board election. One of the winners spent $30K on signs and never uttered a single coherent word at any of the forums. She spent the first one throwing up in the bathroom due to stage fright.

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