Sheriff PJ Tanner
Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography By Anne
On the morning of January 23, 1981, PJ Tanner put his pants on one leg at a time. However on this morning those pants were a part of his Beaufort County Sheriff Officer’s uniform. Tanner had waited for that moment for years. He knew at a young age that he wanted to “be all he could be,” and his intent was to do that through law enforcement.
Tanner spent his late teens and the first year of his twenties “just waiting to turn 21.” He didn’t want to commit to anything long-term post high school, because he knew his ultimate goal. So, as any good born-and-bred Bluffton boy would do, he farmed soy beans on the Ulmer’s Farm (now Old South Golf Links) and worked on the golf course at Moss Creek. And he counted the days.
After hitting the magical age 21, he was off and running (new shoes are also a part of the uniform!). Two years into his new career, Tanner remembers standing at the coffee pot and talking to then Sheriff Morgan McCutchen who asked Tanner what he wanted to do with his life. Tanner replied, “Well, I want your job.” A surprised McCutchen chuckled, and an immediate bond was formed. McCutchen became Tanner’s mentor, and they nurtured a decades-long relationship of mutual respect, both personally and professionally.
Tanner’s road to McCutchen’s job was a winding one. For 13 years, he moved up the ranks, working SWAT, drug task force, and internal affairs. “I was a cowboy, a sergeant answering directly to the Sheriff. I thought I could do anything,” he said.
And he did. On March 15, 1994 he filed the paperwork to run for sheriff.
Eight months later he lost that election. Hindsight being 20/20 Tanner said, “I wasn’t ready and that was obvious. I wasn’t comfortable in the political arena. I needed to lose. I needed to be humbled. I needed to have my legs cut from under me.”
He also needed a break. So, he headed to Columbia, SC and a job with the Department of Public Safety. There he worked on the governor’s protective detail, on Supreme Court investigations, and most importantly building relationships. Each relationship opened a door and exposed Tanner to what politics really meant.
His four years working for the state also gave him time to refine his next move, because he knew the moment he left that he would be back. And sure enough, on March 15, 1998, he was back in Beaufort County again, filing the paperwork to run for sheriff. This time, though, he said, “I was a changed person. I understood the process better. I was more comfortable.” And that experience paid off. Tanner won the election by 113 votes and has been serving as Beaufort County Sheriff ever since.
But, it’s not about him. Tanner made that pretty clear. “It’s not about me, I serve the people,” he said. “This office belongs to the people. And the people need to feel confident in their law enforcement. ” You might say his mission has been to create that confidence.
During his tenure, Tanner has doubled the department budget and increased services. These “services” include a forensic science division which encompasses a drug analysis, arson, and DNA lab. “We’ve also added an Immigration Enforcement Unit, along with a Level 1 Bomb and S.W.A.T. team,” said Tanner. “Basically we now have more crime fighting tools available to us.” Violent crime is down and arrests are up, due in part to Tanner’s approach and the addition of 75 new members to the team since his election to the post. His department is comprised of law enforcement officers from around the country, each of whom brings different experience and different perspective to the table. Yet, “everyone knows the mission and everyone is held accountable.” Tanner said, “Every day, we are trying to be better than we were yesterday.” And he tells his officers, “If it’s not broken, you’re not looking hard enough”—a philosophy that he encourages each officer to apply both professionally and personally. And he does the same.
Tanner doesn’t have an e-mail address, but he is cutting edge. He thinks outside the box and approaches things in an untraditional way. Recognizing the backlog in county cases due to an excruciatingly slow forensics process that can drag up to one year, courtesy of the state forensics lab, Tanner got the funding to build a lab right here in Beaufort County.
The new lab, slated to open this month, will put the needed resources right at law enforcements’ fingertips—a forensics lab outfitted to test drugs, DNA, and even arson cases and a database to house everything they find. This forward-thinking move gets the evidence in the hands of the solicitor in less than 30 days, puts the suspected offender in court in less than 30 days, and gives a victim closure in less than 30 days. The lab and database will also hit the career criminal (10 percent of the population commit 85 percent of the crime locally) below the belt. “We don’t have a crime problem, we have a criminal problem,” explained Tanner. “If we can get the career criminal tried and sentenced in less than 30 days, he isn’t out on the street repeat offending.”
And, for cases that have stalled and hit the cold case file pile, Tanner has an ace in the hole. He calls them his “cold case squad.” He remains mum on their true identities, only revealing that they are a volunteer group of a dozen retired law enforcement officers, homicide detectives, attorneys, and financial whizzes from New York City, Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey and beyond whom he has enlisted to comb through the cold cases in the hopes that they will find something his team hasn’t.
Each day, Sheriff Tanner wakes up, put his pants on one leg at a time, just like you and me, and he heads to work. If he sees a pair of mirrored glasses, which he “hates,” he’ll take them. If his officer’s hair is “high and tight” he might tease him. He is anything but traditional. He plays by the book, but by nature of his attitude he’s also writing his own story.
He isn’t the elusive Sheriff. He’s a gentleman. A 2.7 handicap golfer. A husband. A hunter. A philanthropist. An active community member. And a candidate.
Yes, on March 15, he filed that paperwork once again in the hopes of four more years.