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Frontline Fellows: Q&A with Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie

Committed to progress in South Carolina, fellows of The Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) seek to develop real solutions for real social issues. As the COVID-19 outbreak has drastically changed the way we live, these state leaders are quickly adapting the ways they support the communities they serve. We’re shining the spotlight on their exemplary leadership during this unprecedented time in our new Frontline Fellows series.

See all Frontline Fellows Q&As

In this interview, we speak with Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie, a 2016 Riley Fellow who has spent more than 30 years on the force. A strong believer in community policing, Ritchie tells us about the creative ways his department has been reaching out to the town’s most vulnerable populations while still ensuring the safety of his officers. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What are some of the challenges your police department has faced as a result of COVID-19?

Keeping up with the rapidly changing executive orders. Especially in the beginning, it seemed like every other day there was a new local, state, or national order coming out that we had to adapt to.

In addition to that, keeping our officers healthy. We don’t come into the building anymore to get assignments. We do a lot of conference calling with one another. We didn’t want to put our officers into a home with someone who may be infected, so luckily our dispatch center came up with a great list of questions they can ask folks when they called in that would give us an idea of whether we’d possibly walking into that type of situation. We could put our personal protective equipment (PPE) on and take extra precautions, and that was very helpful.

Finally, really encouraging the compliance of the executive orders and trying to assure the public that we weren’t infringing on anyone’s constitutional rights. What a strange time we live in when we’re telling people to stay inside their homes, not to go to church, not to shop, not to work, not to go to parks. I mean, you know, that’s just contrary to what we want to do.

I’m very disappointed with the way I’ve seen a few other agencies across the country use heavy-handed enforcement. We have such a good relationship with the community. When we were asking them to comply and encouraging them, I’d say 99 percent of them understood why we’re doing what we’re doing.

Mount Pleasant Police Department (MPPD) has long been viewed as a state leader for community policing. Why and how have you chosen to prioritize community through your service?

We as a police department have to remember our community is why we’re here to begin with. We exist to serve and protect our community. We’ve always wanted our community to tell us what their concerns are, what their needs are, and how we can work together to make things happen. I just think by doing that, it builds such a strong relationship that even during trying times, our community is ready to step up and be that partner and not cause opposition or see us as the bad guy.

In what ways have you witnessed your officers going above and beyond to lend support to others during this time?

They’re always going above and beyond, but I think they’ve put a great deal of effort into being present in these communities right now with everyone being encouraged to stay at home. For Mount Pleasant residents to be able to see our officers in their neighborhoods — still keeping the social distance — but talking to them, reassuring them that everything is going to be OK, I think that’s so important.

We’ve also really worked closely with our schools, leading teachers in drive-by parades through neighborhoods where their kids live, so they can let students know how much they’re appreciated.

We’ve helped hand out lunches to those kids. With schools being out, there was concern that some children weren’t getting enough to eat, so our school resource officers teamed up with the Charleston County School District to have locations where parents and students could pick up meals. They found out that some parents and kids couldn’t get to these pick-up locations, so we sent the meals to these kids to ensure they would have that good meal that they were having in school.

Your police department has partnered with Meals on Wheels to check on senior citizens as many experience social isolation to an even greater degree than before. How did the initiative come about, and what inspired you to act?

Before this ever occurred, we had the Knox Box program, through which our advocates regularly reach out to seniors who live alone and check on them weekly to see if they need anything. We continued doing that through this pandemic. Then I found out that Meals on Wheels folks needed to reduce the frequency of their meal drop-offs to every two weeks. For some of our seniors here in Mount Pleasant, that was probably their only human contact, and they wouldn’t see anybody for two weeks.

After hearing that, I worked with all my senior advocates, police officers, and Meals on Wheels to get a list of addresses where every one of these folks live. Now my officers who work these districts go by daily to check on these seniors to make sure they have enough food and medicine — and just to say hello. We have their phone numbers, so we’ll call them, and they’ll step through the door. We don’t get out of our cruisers and keep our social distance, but we speak to them and check on them. I just did not want to see a senior go two weeks without human contact waiting on those next meals.

How can residents of Mount Pleasant best support first responders right now?

Be patient. We’re in our second month now. Most people have cabin fever. They’re ready to get out of their homes. I just ask the folks to be patient, trust us, and know that we’re in this together. Adhere to the stay-at-home request and limit your visit to stores. Go get what you need to, and then go back home. Go out and exercise and walk your dog, but then go back home for us.

For folks in my community, keep sending us thank-you’s. We’ve gotten so many great emails, notes, phone calls, and meals. Our restaurant community has been huge here in Mount Pleasant by fixing meals for our police officers and firefighters and delivering to us. Just keep supporting us and know we’re here for you.

In this time of crisis, what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about leadership?

Being consistent. I think that’s always been the case, not just in crisis. My message as a police chief during this crisis has remained the same. From day one, I’ve been saying the police department is here for you. We’re not here to write tickets. We’re not here to take people to jail. We’re here to educate, support you, and help you understand what’s going on in this crisis.

I think that consistency is also important with the police officers. Those who serve under me have to hear that consistent message about the community policing, about our “why.” Our “why” is to serve our community. If I start changing that message in the middle of a crisis, all that does is cause chaos and confusion. Consistency in message and leadership is just very important. 

Chief Ritchie reading The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss to kids remotely 

How has your participation in The Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) influenced your leadership and the programs you have instituted at the Mount Pleasant Police Department?

I’ve always believed in being inclusive and providing services to all members of our community no matter where you come from. I expect our officers to treat residents the same way, whether they live in a $1 million dollar home or they’re part of the homeless population. I have stressed over and over that everyone deserves fair and quality police protection and services.

You always hear about making sure your police department is representative of the community you serve, well, we overrepresent. We are probably more diverse than any other agency I’ve seen in the state of South Carolina, from race and ethnicity to gender and sexual orientation. There’s so much great respect internally with the officers. That respect is seen out in the street as well. I am very proud of that and very proud of the group we have working for the same mission.

As far as the Diversity Leaders Initiative, my group’s capstone project was a response to the opioid crisis. The project we implemented is still very much alive today in Mount Pleasant. I am working on it constantly with WakeUp Carolina. We’re saving lives, and I think that’s a direct result of DLI. We are educating those who have addictions and those who have overdosed. All our officers are certified on Narcan. We’re actually training our citizens on how to use it and hosting support groups. It’s been huge.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us with everything that is going on. Do you have anything else on your mind?

It’s important for everyone to remember that public safety has to be a partnership. It can’t be an “us vs. them” mentality, and sadly, I see that across the nation. To lead a successful police department and be a successful police chief, you’ve got to have strong community relations, and it’s something you have to build on every day. You can’t just sit back and say, “I’ve done one good project, and that will carry me through.” It has to be ongoing and daily, and that’s exactly what we do here.