Rural Police

There was often disagreement in a county about whether to set up or keep rural police. From its start in the 1900s, nearly to Home Rule in the early 1970s, rural police remained part of the law for select counties.

The term “rural police” has a more specific connotation than its literal meaning of law officers operating in a remote area with little development. Usually, police services in the unincorporated areas of the counties and small municipalities are the responsibility of the sheriffs. In the early 20th century, South Carolina began experimenting with a change that affected policing by sheriffs. The modification was known as the “rural police.”

According to newspaper accounts, several legislative attempts failed around 1907 to form county rural police under a statewide model. Following those efforts, bills were passed, successfully creating rural police in individual counties. Before Home Rule, the General Assembly established rural police in several counties for the corresponding legislative delegations. The process is often referred to as “local legislation.” The county police “system” ranged across every region of the state. Each rural police system had a separate law creating it—limiting sheriffs to varying degrees by requiring the sheriff to share management of county law enforcement.

Although the rural police supplemented rather than supplanted the meager number of county law enforcement officers of that time, the effect on sheriffs was nearly the opposite. The rural police were a way for some to express dissatisfaction with sheriffs. Sheriffs are provided in the state constitution and are not to be quickly repealed or replaced. Article V, Section 24 states in part, “There shall be elected in each county by the electors thereof a clerk of the circuit court, a sheriff, and a coroner; and in each judicial circuit a solicitor shall be elected by the electors thereof.” In comparison, some intended the rural police as an alternative to sheriffs, while others wanted the rural police to strengthen their county’s resources. Either way, forming a rural police system followed when sufficient voters pushed their legislative delegations to introduce a bill, and the General Assembly approved it.

The governance of the rural police varied. The sheriff oversaw some, and county-level commissions managed others. Hybrid models created inefficient management structures that included the sheriff as an ex-officio commission member and others as co-supervisors. The rank of captain was given in one county as the senior rural police officer. The rural police existed at a time when the legislative delegations oversaw their respective counties, and the General Assembly decided much of the county budgets. Once established, the delegation would typically choose rural police commission members and send their names to the governor for appointment. Disagreements occurred under the shared management, and the rural police sometimes became contentious.

The disputes were evidenced by Act 127 of 1911 of the South Carolina Statutes at Large, which provided rural police in Greenwood County. It stated that upon approval and the recommendation of the legislative delegation, “The Governor would appoint three able-bodied men of the County of Greenwood who are of good habits and of courage, coolness and discretion…” The men were to serve as “county police officers” rather than deputies under the “direction of the Sheriff and under the general supervision of the foreman of the Grand Jury of said County to patrol and police the county especially the rural districts…” However, Act 127 was repealed, reintroduced, and reviewed by the state Supreme Court, indicating how policy and opinion regarding the rural police initiative could change.

Further making the point, The Clinton Chronicle reported on January 26, 1933, that the General Assembly passed a bill authorizing a referendum in Laurens County for citizens to decide the “question of continuing, reducing or abolishing the rural police system of Laurens County.” The local senator said, “If the system is abolished entirely, the delegation would give the sheriff a deputy or two.” Pro and con discussions on the issue were held across the state.

The rural police concept was fraught with funding and management issues. There was often disagreement in a county about whether to set up or keep rural police. From its start in the 1900s, nearly to Home Rule in the early 1970s, rural police remained part of the law for select counties. Sheriffs provided law enforcement in their counties before and since the rural police phased out. Interestingly, Horry County is the only county with a sheriff and a county police force, albeit distinct from the rural police of old.

Underwood, J.L.; The Constitution of South Carolina, Volume II: The Journey Toward Local Self-Government. Columbia; University of South Carolina Press.

Rural Police System for Richland County. (1909, March 15). The Columbia Record, p. 2.

Special. (1908, February 20). The Evening Index, p. 1.

Two Good Bills. (1907, January 24). The Evening Index, p. 6.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Rural Police
  • Author
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 19, 2023
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