Legendary Lexington County lawman hangs up his gun belt after more than 38 years of service
Pelion, SC – Pelion’s Police Chief Chris Garner formerly announced his retirement Thursday night. Garner has been police chief since he helped the small town reestablish its department in 2004. In total, Garner has over 38 years of law enforcement service. Policing has always been Garner’s passion; it's a part of who he is as a man.
A native of a rural part of Genesee County, NY, his great-grandfather was a state constable and his father was the undersheriff, their version of an assistant sheriff, of the county they lived in. After moving south, his father taught at the SC Criminal Justice Academy until he retired. Even his mother was in law enforcement. She worked for the NY State Department of Corrections for many years.
When Garner moved to SC, he took a job with the SC Department of Correction. He knew he wanted to police the streets, but the SCDC position paid the bills until he got oriented to the area and found the job that best suited him. He was living in the Gilbert-Summit area at the time, and when a position came open at the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department, he applied and was hired. That was in June of 1980. He stayed more than 20 years. A mountain of a man at well over 6' tall, he's hard to miss. and known by most across the county.
His first assignment ironically, was covering the Pelion area. Garner had never even been there and used a paper map book to guide him to the town. This was in the day that Edmund Highway was known as Hwy. 215, and he followed it west in the right direction. It was a very foggy morning and when Garner got to Pelion, he accidentally passed right through. It was only when he entered the town of Wagener in Aiken County that he realized he had made a mistake! By the time he crossed back over the North Edisto River, the fog had cleared enough for him to see the " entering Lexington County" sign. It was a humorous start to his law enforcement career!
During his tenure at the sheriff’s office, he worked with many special units and actually blazed some trails by starting programs that are still recognized nationally today. He ran with the blood hounds, was on the SWAT team, and in 1982/83, then Sheriff Jim Metts tasked him with starting the first traffic unit at the department after applying for grants to fund it. Through Garner’s dedication and hard work, that unit and the LCSD were recognized nationally with the J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety, an honor normally only bestowed upon state patrols.
During his time with the sheriff’s department, Garner also worked part time with other departments. In 1980, at a starting salary of just $8,900 a year, it was almost a must that deputies did this. Garner worked with Chief Wayne Wilson with the South Congaree department and Chief O.T. Watts of Pine Ridge for many years on his days off. Here too, he made a great impact helping to keep the peace and making the streets a little safer for the good guys.
In the early 1990’s he met Connie Shockley through her father Judge Bill Shockley, the Swansea area magistrate, and her brother Greg Shockley. The judge had been a deputy himself before taking the bench. Greg was interested in law enforcement, later became a reserve deputy, worked for the state as a SLED agent, and finally came back to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department as one of the chief deputies when Sheriff Koon took office several years ago. In 1991, Garner married Connie and the couple moved to the Mack Edisto area, building a home on some family property. The couple have one son, William, a senior at Orangeburg Prep who’s also interested in a career in law enforcement.
In 1996, Sheriff Metts established the regional concept at the sheriff’s department. Although Garner was perfectly happy heading up the traffic unit, Metts made it clear that he wanted him to take command of the South Region. This expansive area encompassed parts of Lexington, everything south of I-20, and continued all the way to the Orangeburg and Calhoun County lines.
With no budget for an office, Garner went on the hunt for a place to call a headquarters for his region. His mother-in-law was working at Gaston Copper Recycling, and one day she called him and said that the plant’s manager, Bobby Wells, wanted to talk with him. He met Wells one morning and was shown a small space that wasn’t being used. After saying the smaller space would do, he was told it wasn’t just the little space he was looking at, in fact. They were offering him the whole building! Thus, the South Region’s first headquarters was established. Eventually, that office would include a huge conference room, a fully equipped weight room, an auditorium for muster, and plenty of storage space for special equipment that the sheriff had nowhere to store.
During his tenure at the sheriff’s office, Garner became an instructor and began to teach at the SC Criminal Justice Academy. His unit was also selected to work with equipment manufacturers to test and evaluate different products. They tested, cars, brake pads, tires, and police electronics, among other items. Manufacturers came to him because they knew they’d get an honest evaluation and the products would get a real-world test that cut them no slack.
Besides police work, Garner has always been athletic and had a passion for sports. He played football in high school, was a state champion wrestler, and participated in power lifting. He competed as a powerlifter in the SC Police Olympics, and eventually won a national title in bench-press for his weight class. He still volunteers as the strength coach at his son's school today.
His passion for lifting would eventually sideline him for a period from the job he loved. He hurt himself in training and his doctor told him that he’d have to stay out of police cars awhile or undergo extensive surgery on his back. To slow the physical wear and tear on his body, Garner took a job with the renowned solicitor of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, Donnie Myers. Here, he acted as Myers' chief investigator for a year, working mostly on death penalty cases in multiple counties. Eventually, his back healed and he knew he wanted to get back to work at the sheriff’s department.
He returned to Lexington County as a lieutenant with the training division. He stayed there until he retired the first time. To keep his certification, he worked under Chief Ben Spence with the Swansea Police Department part-time. He also did a bit of this and that, but he missed the excitement and adrenalin of policing the streets full-time. Unbeknownst to him, God had a new plan that was coming together in Pelion.
Charlie Haggerty was the town’s mayor and he and councilman Sam Jackson called Garner one day and asked him to stop by and talk. The council had been considering restarting the police department after decades and they wanted him to take the helm and make that happen. After considering it for a short while, Garner said he’d take the job under two conditions. First, he told them that he would not make his budget off revenue generated by the police department. That meant that they wouldn’t frivolously stop cars or make arrests for every minor violation,simply to make the money to run the department. Second, and most importantly, Garner told them, “I will run this department as I see fit, and it needs to be run. If you have a problem with the department, or anyone in it, you come to me, and I will take care of it.” The two leaders agreed and in just two weeks, Garner had purchased some cruisers, obtained the necessary equipment, hired his longtime co-worker Mike Crider as the first full-time officer, and the department was born.
Since that time, he has led the department and protected the citizens of the little town he once drove through without even realizing it. The department has grown and Pelion now employs 3 full-time, 2 part-time, and 2 reserve officers. It has 4 patrol cars, 2 pickup trucks that were both donated to the department, and 1 van for transporting prisoners from the department to court, also donated. In 2004, Frank Shumpert, the owner of the IGA, donated to the department a new Rhino all-wheel-drive UTV that they use during special events and for patrolling the schools and larger tracts of land in the town, mostly at night.
Under his leadership, Garner helped draft a child safety ordinance that helps to keep unattended children and teens from just wandering the streets, began the Pelion Police Department Foundation, a 501 (C-3) nonprofit that helps buy equipment that isn’t in the budget, and started a Sr. Check program to help keep a watchful eye on the aging population of the town. He also has officers visit the elementary schools daily so that they can foster a good relationship with the children of the community. During the floods and severe storms, the department even used their 4x4 trucks to deliver medication to seniors who couldn’t get out. For Garner, it’s all about filling the needs of the community.
Garner said during a recent interview that Pelion still has that Mayberry kind of feel. “Although this is a small town, we are growing in areas like traffic,” Garner said. “Even though we are seeing a great deal more commercial vehicle traffic and more and more cars every day, we have had a drop in accidents because we focus on making sure drivers are obeying the traffic laws for everyone’s safety.This job is all about being even handed and consistent," he concluded.
Family and friends are struggling with the fact that the chief won’t be putting on his uniform every day anymore. Garner’s 17-year-old son William recently said, “As far back as I can remember, there has always a patrol car in the driveway. To say the least, it will be very different pulling up in the driveway and seeing no patrol car. I can remember as a child being picked up from preschool or my grandmother’s house and being so happy to get to see my dad. I would ask him about what he did at work that day, and that excitement has followed me through the years to this very day. My whole life I've had people come up to me and ask if I was Chris Garner's son. With great pride, I would answer "Yes, that's my dad.” William went on to say that people he met would tell him either how much his dad had helped them, or a loved one in their family. “I have some of the best, and most unforgettable memories riding with dad in his patrol car. Growing up, I knew that law enforcement was what I wanted to do in my future.” He concluded by saying, “I couldn't have asked for a better role model to have to look up to than my father! I'm so proud of him and love him very much!”
Sheriff Jay Koon said that he has known Garner for more than 30 years, even before his law enforcement career began. “He’s a guy I could bounce ideas off of and he always gave me his honest, straightforward opinion.” Koon went on to say that there was no guessing with Garner. “You always knew where he stood. He’s very straightforward and honest; he tells it like it is.”
Koon also said that he had a wonderful relationship with Garner and the small department. “He works side by side with my department, is always cooperative with Captain Howard, the region’s commander, and there’s never been any power struggle or territorial conflicts. With Chief Garner, it’s about teamwork and getting the job done.”
Rick Hubbard, now the solicitor of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit, said recently, “I’ve known Chris Garner my entire career. He is a huge man both literally, and figuratively, and he will leave a huge void in the law enforcement community in Lexington County.” Hubbard went on to say, “The Chief is a consummate professional, and I have always loved working with him.”
During his career, Garner has had to make thousands of arrests as he evenhandedly enforced the laws of the land. He’s won multiple awards, been recognized by the county council in a resolution in recognition of receiving the 2007 Strom Thurmond Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement as the Outstanding City Law Enforcement Officer by the Office of the U.S. Attorney, and a host of others. To Garner, these are really just decorations on his walls. The accolades that matter most, are the love and affection of the people he’s helped and served.
For the first time in years, Chief Garner won’t be at Pelion’s annual SC Peanut Party. He’s left the responsibility of policing the town to his old friends and co-worker Mike Crider. He’ll miss leading the parade, a duty he’s shared with his son William since he was 4 years old. It will be strange not to see the mountain of a man at the lead.
Garner says he’s going to still do some work around the area. He’ll drive a truck for some local business friends, spend some time relaxing, and he’ll keep working with his son on their antique pulling tractor, something they both enjoy. He also still plans to continue volunteering at his son's school, and will do some consulting with law enforcement suppliers and advisers.
Most who know him believe that this will be a short break. At some point in the future, when the right opportunity presents itself, the “Chief” will be back in blue. He’ll be back serving the citizens of the county that’s adopted him years ago, and he’s come to know and love.
(L) Interim Chief Mike Crider (R) Chief Chris Garner (ret)