Eric Watson

Gamal Williams | July 19th, 2021
Eric Watson

Eric Watson

A young man is hanging out in his neighborhood with some friends. The group are approached by two officers, and what started as a calm conversation, quickly turned hostile. One of the officers told the group to leave the area and go home. The teenager informed the police that he and his friends were in their neighborhood already, then pointed to his home just a few houses away from where they stood. He told the officer that was where he lived. It was to no avail. The boy complied and began to leave, yet as he passed the officer, the officer began to harass him. The officer accosted and grabbed him, then slammed him to the ground despite protests from neighbors and his mother as she ran screaming towards the situation. The boy was arrested for disobeying an officer, fingerprinted, and pushed through the court system, before all charges were later dropped and his record expunged. 

During his 27 years in law enforcement, Eric Watson, the former Charleston County South Carolina Deputy Sheriff’s Office Deputy Chief of Operation, fought against occurrences like the one above. After college, Eric began his law enforcement career as a Detentions Deputy at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston, SC. After three years in corrections, he received a lateral transfer to become a Deputy Sheriff for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office. With tours as a patrol deputy, a detective in the Criminal Investigations Division, patrol supervisor, the Office of Professional Standards, and Sheriff’s Office spokesperson along the way, Eric rose to the rank of Chief Deputy of Operations, one of the highest command positions in the Sheriff’s Office.
Stories of unjust arrests are all too familiar within the African-American community. There are far too few stories like Eric Watson, a Black man holding one of the most powerful positions within law enforcement. Yet the first story is what motivates Eric Watson. Why?

Eric Watson was that boy.

“When I was arrested, they didn’t even tell me what I was arrested for. I didn’t find out the charge until we got to the station,” recalls Eric. “The worst part was, there were two Officers; one was White, the other was Black. The Black Officer started teasing me when I was in the back of the police cruiser crying, saying ‘look at the little baby cry.’ When we got to the station, I challenged the Black officer and protested that I was arrested on a bogus charge. When he asked where I actually lived, I showed him my I.D. I lived at 18A Washington Street, and they arrested me on Washington Street. He knew he was wrong, but they threw me in jail anyway.”

Eric defines the incident as pivotal, not just because he was arrested on a false charge, but because while he sat in the police cruiser, he heard the real reason why he was in handcuffs and on his way to the police station.

“While we were enroute to the station, the Black Officer asked his partner ‘what happened back there?’ The White Officer responded, ‘I don’t know, I just snapped.’ It was in that moment I decided that this (becoming a cop) was what I wanted to do. I needed to know what they knew and what gave them the right to just take someone’s freedom unjustly. I used that to motivate me.”

“Being a Black Officer anywhere in this country, we bring a unique approach. I grew up in the projects. I didn’t have access to quality education or real tangible jobs. I grew up in a drug infested, poverty stricken environment,” he explains. “But on the flipside, I am a first generation cop. My mother didn’t want me to join, my family and friends didn’t want me to join. Being a cop, my community looks at me as an outcast, as an individual that took part in an organization that for decades has oppressed our community. But my counterparts in law enforcement don’t see or understand the why: why people are committing these crimes, why they are doing what they are doing.”

Eric developed and implemented a mentorship program within the Sheriff’s Department, aimed at new recruits (mostly White), to teach them that it is important for law enforcement to relate to the community, to understand them, and treat them as human beings. New recruits joined Eric at food drives and other community outreach programs. “I told my new recruits that the people that trust us the least, need us the most. It is important that we develop that trust,” Eric proudly stated.

In 2020, Eric was offered a new opportunity: to leave the Sheriff’s Office and create a new directorate as the Charleston County Deputy County Administrator of Public Safety. From his new position, Eric continues his efforts to improve police relations and their attitudes towards the African-American community, and vice versa. He now manages Emergency Management, Emergency Medical Services (EMS), Charleston County 9-1-1 Consolidated Dispatch, and the Awendaw Fire Department. He also serve as a law enforcement liaison for Charleston County Government. One of the innovative ways Eric has deployed his power and vast experience in the field, was to help identify new strategies to deescalate situations where the deployment of police may not be the best course of action. He has also served on multiple nonprofits boards and volunteers his time mentoring youths as a way to give back to the community.

This past August, in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Health, Consolidated Dispatch began utilizing mental health counselors in the 9-1-1 call center to identify situations where a mental health professional would be better suited to respond vice the police. Additionally, he procured a $4.4 million budget increase for EMS, allowing for raises, better resources and equipment, and the hiring of additional staff. It’s this type of insight and forward thinking that can give us hope a better relationship between the African-American community, and not only the police, but all state and local emergency services can and will be better.

“I didn’t enter this profession to become a millionaire; I entered it to make it (law enforcement) and my community better than when I got into it.”

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