By Mimi Wood for The Island Eye News
Upon graduating from “the previous” Wando High School, “My mother pushed me to go to college,” recounts recently retired IOP Police Chief Thomas E. Buckhannon. “So, I completed one year, at which point I told her, ‘If you want to go to school, you go.’” That was 1980. Buckhannon, perhaps a bit more headstrong in his youth, promptly landed himself a job as a dispatcher for the IOP Fire Department. By the end of the summer of 1981 he had completed the course at the Police Academy, and joined the 5 other officers who comprised the IOPPD at the time.
Thirty seven years later, on Friday, April 13 at 5 p.m. sharp, one of the city’s most beloved public servants signed off across Charleston’s dispatch system, and was escorted off the Isle of Palms in a sea of blue flashing lights, as the Island’s finest, looking quite fine indeed in their dress blues, bid “Chief B.” adieu.
At first glance, it would seem Buckhannon hit the accelerator of his original patrol car, and never looked back, as he barreled through the ranks of the IOPPD at a clip that would certainly warrant a speeding citation today. He was awarded “Police Officer of the Year” in 1984, just three years after joining the department, along with a promotion to Corporal. Ascending to Sergeant in 1987, he found himself named a Lieutenant in 1989, just ahead of Hurricane Hugo. He skipped right over the rank of Captain, bumped up to Deputy Chief in 1990. After a brief stint as Interim Chief in Spring 1995, Buckhannon was elevated to the post he held for the past 23 years, Isle of Palms Chief of Police.
Multi-tasking long before it was a thing, Buckhannon obtained his degree in Business Accounting from Baptist College in 1989. So not only was he rising in the ranks, he was going to school, and helping his wife Carol raise their two young sons. “The early years were rough,” his bride of 34 years recalls. “We were both working full-time for the IOPPD, opposite shifts. I’d pass the baby to him in the parking lot as he got off night duty, and I was coming on.”
Forever embracing change, (“Hey, I have this idea…”) Chief B. was on the cutting edge of trends far beyond multitasking.
Obtaining the CALEA accreditation in 2002 was one of the first goals he achieved for the IOPPD. CALEA is the gold standard in law enforcement protocol; “It helps in every situation,” explains Buckhannon. Other points of pride include maintaining and updating the city’s computer network and phone system “since the late ’80s…they’re going to have to hire someone.”
In 2006 Buckhannon helped implement the Consolidated Dispatch Center, better known as the 911 Call Center; no small feat “trying to get city and county to agree, mixing politics and technology,” noted retired City of Charleston Chief of Police Greg Mullen. Along with others, Buckhannon rose to the challenge, and then took his turn chairing its board.
Closer to home, Buckhannon was instrumental in the design, build and transition to the newly-constructed Public Safety Building in 2009, a complex, three year project involving input from more agencies than he can remember. He also instituted the IOPPD’s positions of liveability, which, among other things, helps to maintain harmony between residents and visitors.
And of course there was Hugo, in 1989, right after he’d been promoted to Lieutenant. “I had a pretty integral role in the storm preparation,” Buckhannon recounts. For starters, “We had a briefing at Emergency Operations in North Charleston on Tuesday morning, September 19. That night was the last time I slept until after the eye passed, around midnight, on Thursday, September 21.”
“I was responsible for setting up a secure facility and communications center. We stayed in the Luthern Retreat Center on 21st. Mandatory evacuation began Thursday morning; we were told that the storm surge would be 18’. The height of the second floor of the Retreat Center was 15’. ‘This is bad arithmetic,’ I told Mayor Bunch. The last 7 officers left the island in their squad cars around 10 p.m. that Thursday night. One was towing a police boat. We never should have left; I still don’t know how we got through that wind with no issues.”
Carol Buckhannon remembers listening on the walkietalkie to each of the seven sounding off as they made it safely across the Ben Sawyer into Mt. Pleasant. “I was so scared. ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it. The wind is lifting up the side of my car,’ “ she recalls the last officer crackling across the airwaves.
Buckhannon was back at it 5 a.m. the following morning.
“Thank goodness we’d taken the boat; there was no other way to get on the island,” as the Ben Sawyer had been destroyed. Despite the fact he’d grown up here, “The island was unrecognizable. You needed to look for landmarks to be able to tell where you were. There was one operational phone; a pay phone in front of the Red and White,” describing the spot upon which the Harris Teeter now sits.
However, he was calm, cool and collected then, as it seems he’s always been. “To a fault,” confides Carol, “He would never fight. He’d say, ‘Let’s talk about this rationally.’ “
A Farewell Reception was held on April 12 at the Public Safety Building. Chief Buckhannon spoke briefly, remarking “This is all very humbling,” and thanking the city for “putting up with me; I can be strongly opinionated.” He continued, “We’ve experienced tremendous growth, and laid the foundation for many great things. I hope I’ve had a positive influence…and now, I’m ready to get in my RV and take off!”
The staggering number of who’s who in local law enforcement, politics and public service spoke volumes to the respect, admiration and esteem in which Chief Buckhannon is held. Among those offering congratulations were active and retired Chiefs of Police from the City of Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, and North Charleston. Dennis Turner, Hanahan’s Chief of Police, and Jon Rogers, Summerville’s Chief, also in attendance, are of special note, as they came into their present roles through the ranks of the IOPPD, under Chief Buckhannon.
John Zumalt, retired North Charleston Chief of Police, perhaps summed it up best, pronouncing Buckhannon “one hellaciously (sic) fine police chief.”