After initially declining to respond, sheriff calls social media monitoring reports ‘irresponsible, discouraging’

Published: Oct. 1, 2021 at 8:34 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 1, 2021 at 9:30 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano criticized media reports Friday about an intelligence briefing compiled of news reports and social media posts on the death of Jamal Sutherland.

“The way this document has been portrayed has made it seem like some of our community members were something they were not, and it’s caused an unnecessary divide, and they have done nothing wrong,” Graziano said at a news conference at the sheriff’s office on Friday. It was the first time she released a statement on a report last week and a news conference held by Lowcountry social activists on Wednesday afternoon.

READ MORE: Sheriff’s office monitored Jamal Sutherland activists’ social media posts, emails show

The initial media report focused on a May 12 intelligence briefing prepared ahead of the release of video showing an encounter between Sutherland and detention deputies who were forcibly extracting him from his jail cell so that he could attend a bond hearing on Jan. 5. Sutherland declined to go to the bond hearing and was not legally required to. During that situation, Sutherland became unresponsive and died.

“The Security Threat Analysis Unit is actively monitoring Social Media and News Outlets regarding any information related to the death of Jamal Sutherland,” sheriff’s office employee Willis Walker wrote in a May 12 email to command staff at the sheriff’s office.

Walker’s email, which was released by Charleston County in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, includes multiple screenshots of social media posts from State Rep. Wendell Gilliard and community activists such as Kwadjo Campbell, Mika Gadsden, and Justin Hunt.

Graziano said the email was a historical record and nothing more. She said it contained statements she and the solicitor made as well as 16 news articles and 15 social media posts. It was a “snapshot of what was happening at that time publicly in our community,” she said.

“What is missing from the narrative that was presented is that our agency didn’t act on any of the information presented. There was no threat, nor did we mention anything about a threat. There was no investigation, nor did our agency mention anything about an investigation,” she said.

The initial media report did not imply that the sheriff’s office acted on any of the information presented and did not state the sheriff’s office either viewed the activists as a threat or investigated them. Prior to the publication of the reports, the sheriff’s office declined requests for an on-camera interview in order to give their perspective regarding the social media monitoring.

Intelligence briefings common, used to protect community, sheriff says

She said her agency has conducted “open-source media searches throughout the United States and sometimes abroad” in the past, adding the searches are collected into email briefings through the agency’s security threat analysis unit.

“At that point we disseminate that information to law enforcement, unedited, and for information sharing purposes only,” she said. “That’s exclusively what happened in this instance. We do this so we can keep tabs on what’s happening in our community so we can adequately respond and keep our community safe. That is our job. We do this to keep the finger on the pulse of our community that we’re sworn to protect and serve.”

She referred to past events in which she said “outside agitators” caused harm to the community, but did not specify to whom she referred.

“Their sole purpose was to disrupt and incite peaceful demonstrations, with the intention of placing blame on our local organizers and participants,” she said. “We’ve had an open dialogue with our local activists and our community members to make sure that they’re safe during these events, and this incident was no different.”

Graziano said she supports the community and the stakeholders and “the amazing work that they are doing in this community,” saying they are doing it “to unite us, not to divide us.”

“The manner in which this incident was presented to local activists in our community was irresponsible and discouraging. It was another attempt to incite and divide us because peace and truth, quite frankly, are boring,” she said. “We are better than that. You are better than that,” she added, apparently directing that to the journalists covering the news conference.

She encouraged anyone who felt “targeted by this irresponsible presentation of information” to continue to do the work they have done.

“Let’s keep these communication lines open, as we have in the past, and continue to work towards the greater good for our community because they deserve it.”

Activists held news conference Wednesday to demand answers on monitoring of social media accounts

Hunt, an activist and the president of the group Stand As One, held a news conference outside the sheriff’s office Wednesday afternoon to demand answers about the monitoring of social media, alleging that only Black activists’ accounts were monitored. Hunt said he has worked in the community side by side with Graziano and campaigned for her in her run against longtime Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, whom she defeated in the November election.

“Sheriff Graziano has my personal cell phone number, so communication should have never been an issue. I’m literally one call away,” Hunt said during his news conference.

Activists criticized what they called Graziano’s silence on the monitoring of social media posts. He also questioned why, when the sheriff’s office decided to surveil him, Graziano didn’t call him to request a meeting.

Graziano said Friday morning that “at no point was a search conducted on any individual or group.” The search was solely on a single topic and was shared for “situational awareness purposes only,” she said.

The sheriff’s office declined a request for an interview last week, referring questions to the SEAHAWK Interagency Operations Center, which has not yet responded. SEAHAWK is run by the Coast Guard, according to a Joint Base Charleston representative.

When asked why she did not immediately respond to the initial report about social media monitoring, she said she never responds to “partial information.”

“I didn’t have all the information. It wasn’t shared with me and that’s why I didn’t respond right away,” she said. “I like to have all the information.”

Graziano did not specify who she wanted additional information to be provided from.

She said she has since had “very productive conversations” with Gilliard.

“He and I have pledged to work together to continue to work towards the things that we’ve been working on and that is reducing gun violence, passing a hate crime legislation and also work to revamp our response to mental health in the community,” she said. “None of that has changed.”

She told reporters she believes stories like this appear because “it’s what makes news and that’s what you guys are paid to do.”

“I’m disappointed in the sheriff’s inability to provide clarity,” Gadsden said on Friday following Graziano’s news conference. “I think she left us with a lot of questions.”

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