SC beach town police chief texted explicit and racist messages to women, lawsuit says

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Two Richland County women are suing the police chief of a small South Carolina beach town, accusing the Sullivan’s Island police chief of sending them a stream of sexually explicit, racist and inappropriate images while he attended a law enforcement conference about leadership.

Emily Lide Ward and Latane Gooding filed the lawsuit in Charleston County on Wednesday against both Police Chief Chris Griffin and the Town of Sullivan’s Island.

Attorney Clay Hopkins, of the Hopkins Law Firm in Charleston, is representing the women in the suit. Hopkins did not immediately return a request for comment Friday, but he told Charleston TV station WCSC that his clients do not believe Griffin should continue to be police chief for Sullivan’s Island — or at any other municipality.

In the seven-page complaint, the women claim Griffin sent them nearly 20 unsolicited and inappropriate images in November 2019 while attending the South Carolina Police Chiefs Association’s annual leadership conference in Myrtle Beach.

Both Ward and Gooding were working at the conference and laughing at a picture on their phones when Griffin approached them, the civil suit said.

Griffin asked to look at the picture and then offered to send them some more. It was unclear in the lawsuit what image the women were laughing at when Griffin approached, but Gooding allegedly took Griffin’s number and added the chief to a group text message with Ward.

That’s when things took a turn.

The suit alleges that Griffin then sent the two women some 20 “unanswered and unprompted” messages that included images the lawsuit characterized as being “sexually explicit, racist, demeaning, and inappropriate.”

When Griffin sent them his last message, the complaint said he then asked, “Like any of those lol.”

Ward and Gooding reported the text messages to the executive director of the S.C. Police Chiefs Association, telling them how uncomfortable Griffin’s actions made them feel.

The next day, the lawsuit said the executive director of the police association and Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie drove to Sullivan’s Island and shared the inappropriate messages with Town Administrator Andy Benke.

While the S.C. Police Chiefs Association revoked Griffin’s membership after seeing the messages, the suit claims the town of Sullivan’s Island did not open an investigation until after the women filed a formal complaint.

And when the town did open its investigation into Griffin and his behavior, the suit said the town “took no remedial or disciplinary action against Defendant Griffin whatsoever.”

Benke, the town administrator, declined to comment on the pending litigation Friday afternoon. Sullivan’s Island Mayor Pat O’Neil also declined to comment on the case.

O’Neil confirmed the suit against the town will be “handled by an attorney of our choosing.”

The women claim they experienced “humiliation, loss of sleep, anxiety, nervousness, physical sickness, physical and mental suffering, pain, and anguish” as a result of the town’s inaction toward Griffin’s behavior.

According to his biography on the town’s website, Griffin has been police chief of the barrier island since January 2018 but his career in law enforcement began in 1995 with the North Charleston Police Department.

He joined the Sullivan’s Island Police Department in 1997 as a patrol officer and worked his way through the ranks.

“Law enforcement is his passion,” Griffin’s biography reads, “and he especially enjoys helping people, becoming part of the community, and developing the department for the future.”

Ward and Gooding sued the town for negligence, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

They seek unspecified damages, a jury trial and assert that Griffin’s conduct toward them was “outrageous.”

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