Sheriff Bruce Bryant sent shock waves through York County law enforcement and politics at a news conference Monday, announcing “with a lump in my throat” that he will retire at the end of this year and will not seek re-election to the office he has held for 20 years.
Bryant, 64, a Republican, said that it is time to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren. Yet, with a “heavy heart,” he leaves an office that he took from a rural police force to a 21st century enforcement agency, complete with technology improvements and upgrades in staffing, training, and productivity.
Bryant said simply, “I’m almost running out of ideas of things to do.”
Since winning election in 1996, Bryant has run virtually without opposition while taking a tough stance on crime and public safety. He has advocated harsh sentences for criminals and took no prisoners in his methods. One time he even put up a billboard at the North Carolina state line that told criminals that in York County he was the law and he would not hesitate to drop the hammer on those who sold drugs or anything else.
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“I loved serving this county,” said Bryant, a York native who started as a deputy in 1972 at age 20.
The announcement – though not totally a surprise as Bryant had hinted at it for months while dealing with cataract surgery as well as taking care of his wife – leaves the office of 350 employees up for grabs in November’s election after June primaries.
Bryant’s son-in-law, Kevin Tolson, a longtime police officer and deputy who serves as an investigator for the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, has long been speculated as a successor.
After Bryant’s announcement Monday, Tolson declined to talk about running but did say that people in law enforcement and in the community have asked him to consider running for the office as a Republican if Bryant were to retire.
“It certainly is something to consider,” Tolson said, but he deferred further comment saying Monday should be about Bryant’s “great legacy” at the sheriff’s office.
Michael Scurlock, a former deputy and former NFL player, resigned two years ago from the sheriff’s office when he told Bryant that he was going to eventually run for the sheriff job. Scurlock confirmed to The Herald Monday after Bryant’s announcement that he will run for sheriff this year as an independent.
Scurlock said he has “great respect for Sheriff Bryant” and would hope to “build on the foundation” that Bryant put in place. Scurlock said he will run as an independent because fighting crime should be non-partisan.
Bryant declined to talk about who he will endorse, saying “I have someone in mind” but offering no names.
“That’s their thunder,” Bryant said.
Any successor should be a seasoned veteran officer with an education to tackle modern crime fighting and leadership requirements, Bryant said.
Bryant said he hadn’t fully made up his mind not to seek another four-year term until Monday when he called a hasty news conference. Many people in politics and law enforcement wanted him to consider one more term but family has to take a priority now, Bryant said.
“I love what I do, and I am going to miss it,” Bryant said.
Bryant served first at the sheriff’s office from 1972 until the mid 1980s, rising through the ranks before leaving for 10 years to become a special agent with the State Law Enforcement Division. He ran for sheriff in 1996 and has been the face of police work in York County ever since.
“It’s like I’m leaving a part of my life behind, but I know I’m not,” he said. “I’m just going into a different chapter the Lord’s leading me to.”
Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit solicitor, said Bryant’s impact on public safety and the quality of life for the people of York County “cannot be overstated.” Bryant created a DNA lab and county forensic and drug units that have undeniably made residents safer, Brackett said.
“Sheriff Bryant brought the sheriff’s office into the 21st century by the sheer force of his will,” Brackett said. “He may be retiring after this year but Bruce Bryant will always be The Sheriff with a capital T and capital S.”
A York County native, Bryant is one of the most powerful Republican political and law enforcement figures in South Carolina. He has been considered for top federal law enforcement jobs during Republican presidential administrations, including the top U.S. Marshals Service job.
Bryant has been awarded the Order of the Palmetto in South Carolina and a host of other state and federal awards. His retirement leaves a vacuum that a new leader will have trouble filling because of Bryant’s experience, toughness and drive, observers say. Bryant was ferociously protective of his deputies. And while politically very conservative, he was just as strongly a proponent of freedom of religion.
Bryant often was quick to point out over the years as sheriff that the buck stopped with him. When a convicted killer was erroneously released from the county jail in early 2012 after a clerical error, Bryant took responsibility as the sheriff over not just the law enforcement side of his office, but the county jail side.
More, Bryant repeatedly told York County residents that area Muslims at rural Holy Islamville near York were not a threat despite several groups and media smear campaigns that tried to portray the Islamville residents as potential extremists.
Accolades for Bryant came in quickly Monday. Chester County Sheriff Alex Underwood, who worked with Bryant at SLED, said that Bryant’s retirement is a “great loss” to law enforcement after all Bryant has done for advancing police work and public safety.
State Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York, a lifelong friend of Bryant’s who worked side by side with Bryant during Pope’s 15 years as York County solicitor, said Bryant’s leadership in bringing cooperation among police has become a statewide model.
“I don’t believe we have seen the last of Bruce Bryant in the area of public service,” said Pope, a candidate for governor in 2018.
Bryant has been courted by Republican leaders for two decades to run for higher state and federal offices, including the state Legislature and even Congress. Until now, Bryant has declined, but he said Monday that he is not retiring as sheriff to run for another office.
“I am not leaving the York County Sheriff’s Office to seek another office in state government,” Bryant said. However, Bryant did not rule out a shot at another political office eventually.
“I won’t say I won’t take a House seat.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065