Serving Barnwell County and it's neighbors since 1852

2 Republican candidates vye to be Barnwell County's next sheriff

Two have filed in hopes of being elected as Barnwell County sheriff – current Sheriff Steve “Grits” Griffith and Stephen Gunnells. Both will be on the June 11 Republican Primary ballot.


Two have filed in hopes of being elected as sheriff – current Sheriff Steve “Grits” Griffith and Stephen Gunnells.
Both will be on the June 11 Republican Primary ballot. Both are natives of Barnwell County.
Griffith, who grew up in Williston, has worked in law enforcement since 1977. He began as a dispatcher but later became a Barnwell police officer. Since joining the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office in 1989, the Marine Corps veteran has advanced through the ranks, including deputy sheriff, shift sergeant, narcotics investigator, criminal investigator, lieutenant, captain, and chief deputy. He was elected sheriff in November 2020 and took office in January 2021.
“Over the last three-plus years, I have, along with the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office team, worked diligently on the three highest priorities I promised while campaigning in 2020: drugs, gangs and community relations to rebuild trust with our youth and citizens,” said Sheriff Griffith.
Gunnells has been in law enforcement since 2004 when he went to work for the S.C. Department of Corrections at the Allendale Correctional Institution. In 2005, he became chief of the Olar Police Department. In 2006, he moved to the Blackville Police Department and received promotions, including master sergeant. He later served with the Bamberg County Sheriff’s Office, but since 2019 has been with the Bamberg Police Department with the school resource program.
“I felt it was time to offer the people of Barnwell County an opportunity for change. I believe in my heart the people of Barnwell County deserve the best, and I want to offer that to them. I truly want to give back to the county that raised me,” said Gunnells.
The winner of the Republican Primary will be on the Nov. 5 General Election ballot. There are no Democratic challengers.

Sheriff Steve Griffith is seeking re-election.
Sheriff Steve Griffith is seeking re-election.

Steve Griffith is a lifelong resident of Barnwell County, raised between Williston and the White Pond Community on the Pender Farm where he worked as a young boy. His parents are the late William Charlie Griffith and Dorothy Johnston Griffith of Williston. As a teenager, Griffith worked as a bag boy and stock clerk for Bolen Brother’s Red and White Grocery Store (now Shumpert’s Market). After graduating from Williston-Elko High School in 1977, he decided to go into law enforcement and began working as a dispatcher for Sheriff George Hogg, while attending criminal justice courses at Orangeburg Technical College. Griffith then worked at the Barnwell Police Department (BPD) from 1980-1982 and graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy (Class 138). In 1982, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and graduated from Basic Training at Parris Island, South Carolina. In 1983, he graduated from the United States Air Force Law Enforcement Academy and the United States Marine Corps Military Police Combat Support Course. He then served as a Military Police Officer at USMC Logistics Base, Albany, Georgia, USMC Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan, and USMC Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina until his honorable discharge in 1986. On August 18th, 1984, he married Melanie Dawn Powers and they have two children and three grandsons.
From 1986-1989, he returned as a police officer for BPD. In 1989, he was hired by Sheriff Joey Zorn as a Deputy Sheriff, and worked his way through the ranks: Deputy Sheriff, Shift Sergeant, Narcotics Investigator, Criminal Investigator, Lieutenant, Captain, Chief Deputy, Sheriff (2021-present).
Griffith is a life member of the Barnwell County Leathernecks Detachment 1227 (USMC), has been a little league baseball coach for several years, is a member of the Ellington Agriculture Club, a life member of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and is a YMCA board member. His hobbies include hunting and fishing, shooting sports, watching baseball, and enjoying spending quality time with grandsons.
He has gained over 3,000 documented training hours over 45 years of experience serving under sheriffs such as Hogg, Zorn, Gantt, and Carroll as well as chiefs, chief deputies, a host of honorable law enforcement peers, and supervisors (military and civilian). Griffith describes this as both a personal and professional adventure. He continues to enjoy the “challenge of evolving with current trends, techniques, policies, technology, etc., and passing on what I have learned to the up-and-coming law enforcement officers.”

Stephen Gunnells is in the race for Barnwell County Sheriff.
Stephen Gunnells is in the race for Barnwell County Sheriff.

Stephen Gunnells was born to Roger Gunnells and Debbie Collins and raised in Barnwell County. Paternal grandparents were the late Jesse and the late Francis Gunnells of Barnwell, maternal grandparents include the late L.B. Collins of Williston, Florence Still of Blackville, and a D.L. Still of Blackville. He has been married to his wife, Annette Gunnells, for eighteen years. They have four children. Gunnells became a licensed minister with the Church of God and attends the Blackville Church of God, where he has been a member for over twenty years.
Gunnells attended Blackville-Hilda School district from pre-kindergarten until my tenth-grade year. In tenth grade, he transferred to Williston-Elko High School where he graduated. During my high school years, he began to prepare for a career in law enforcement by taking courses in Criminal Justice I and Criminal Justice II at the Barnwell County Career Center. While taking Criminal Justice II, he did an internship at the Williston Police Department where he did ride-alongs with the officers and learned a lot of valuable information for my career. In 2004, he accepted a job at the South Carolina Department of Corrections and was assigned to Allendale Correctional Institution, where he completed the S.C. Corrections Officers Academy. Duties included supervising inmates housed in a correctional setting. In 2005 at the age of 22, Gunnells became employed by the Olar Police Department as the youngest Chief of Police in the State of South Carolina at that time and completed the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. As chief, Gunnells worked to develop good relations with the people in the community while developing my skills as a police officer, and dealt with the daily operations of the police department as well as patrolled and answered calls for service.
In 2006, he accepted a Corporal position with the Blackville PD. He soon was promoted to the rank of Sergeant and became a field training officer for the department, then was promoted to Master Sergeant. While employed with the Blackville PD, Gunnells was a field training officer, shift supervisor, patrolled the Town of Blackville, answered calls for service, worked to develop good community relationships, and earned the respect of fellow officers.
In 2009, he accepted a position with the Bamberg County Sheriff’s Office under Sheriff Ed Darnell. To begin building relationships with the young people in the county, he became a basketball coach with Bamberg City League Basketball program for boys ages 11-14.
In 2017, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant with the Bamberg County Sheriff’s Office where he patrolled the county, answered calls for service, supervised those assigned to shift, and was assigned to the Bamberg County Task Force. A lesson from Sheriff Ed Darnell that remains with him today is, “feed everyone from the same spoon,” meaning that regardless of who someone is or their background, treat them the same.
In 2019, he accepted a position as Sergeant with Bamberg Police Department as a School Resource Officer. He is assigned to the School Resource Program. Gunnells started the first Bamberg Explorer Post for young people interested in a career in law enforcement. When the Bamberg and Denmark school districts consolidated, he was selected by the sheriff and chiefs in the county as the special duty coordinator for the school district and used his role as a liaison between the district and the law enforcement community. During my tenure at the Bamberg Police Department, he has been promoted in rank from sergeant, to lieutenant, and then to captain. During his tenure in law enforcement, Gunnells held many positions which include correctional officer, chief of police, corporal, sergeant, master sergeant, lieutenant, and captain.
Training includes the following areas: Basic Law Enforcement Class 1, Crime Scene Investigations, Criminal Gang Investigations, Domestic Violence Investigations, Law Enforcement Response to Gangs, Organized Crimes and Narcotics, Elder Victimization, Sexual Assault Investigations, Fingerprint Recognition, Specific Skills Instructor, School Resource Officer, and other areas of specialized training.

Why have you chosen to run for this seat?

Griffith: I have chosen to run for re-election as sheriff of Barnwell County for numerous reasons.Over the last three plus years, I have, along with the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office team, worked diligently on the three highest priorities I promised while campaigning in 2020: drugs, gangs and community relations to rebuild trust with our youth and citizens.

Gang intelligence has and will continue to be gathered, documented, and incorporated into investigations and community awareness on an ever-growing basis. 

Illegal narcotic arrest and investigations continue to rise due to our active pursuit of the people responsible for the activity from the bottom to the top. I will not, nor will the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office team, stop the active pursuit of the individuals bringing in the illegal substances that ruin or end the lives of so many of our youth and citizens. Top threats are heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl, and recent trafficking of fentanyl mixed with xylazine, also known as tranq. I will, with our partners, attempt to get anyone help for their addiction before it is too late, however, we will enforce the law. The gang and drug problem brings us most of our violent and property crime.

I have seen a very welcome and positive reaction to the Community Relations Unit created in 2021. This unit has documented approximately 250 partners with the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office to date. These range from clergy, churches, school administrators and teachers, businesses, neighborhood watches, private service agencies, government service agencies, Barnwell County, city, and town councils, first responders, firefighters, rescue personnel, emergency management, local, state, and federal law enforcement partners etc. I believe the most important reason I see the on-going increase is due to the bonding going on between our partners, citizens, and the Sheriff’s Office. I will never abandon the goal of building trust between all citizens and this office!

The Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page is available to the public for several reasons. It is not to demean any individual. It’s purpose is to: 

(1) Show the citizens we are working. 

(2) Serves as a venue to get out information on current events or major investigations we are working or assisting on. 

(3) Show arrest of major or illegal narcotic arrest as a DETERRENT to the people who trade in the flow of these threatening drugs. “I will put you out to the public.”

(4) To share the good stories and events. Along with our local news partners who cover this office, I like for the citizens to see the positive interactions with the Sheriff’s Office, from the Law Enforcement Expo, the Law Enforcement Community Service, book reading to the youth by a Deputy at different Sheriff’s Office Partners locations, D.A.R.E. events, sponsoring speakers such as Dr. A.V. Strong to come to our schools to give presentations on gangs, etc., 

We as a county have made tremendous progress and continue to prosper. I feel in my heart I can continue to lead the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with the citizens of Barnwell County in a strong effective manner when re-elected.

Gunnells:  I chose to run for this seat because I felt like this is the direction God was leading me and because I felt it was time to offer the people of Barnwell County an opportunity for change. I believe in my heart the people of Barnwell County deserve the best, and I want to offer that to them. I truly want to give back to the county that raised me.

What does holding this position mean to you?

Griffith:  Honor: it is a tremendous honor to hold the position of being the sheriff of Barnwell County. 

Responsibility: The position of being the sheriff of Barnwell County carries a great weight. The responsibility of having approximately 100 employees to oversee, and the citizens of Barnwell County receive top notch law enforcement services and protection. 

As all can understand, with a team of this size, human mistakes will be made, I correct with whatever action is applicable, and learn from it to avoid making the same mistakes twice.

It takes knowledge, training, and command level experience to lead an office of this size with the different units involved. I am the only candidate with the qualifications to lead these operations effectively and successfully. 

The greatest responsibility is to make every effort to ensure everyone goes home in the same physical and mental condition as when they report in.I will serve with honor to the citizens and do accept the responsibility.

Gunnells:  Holding this position means so much to me. It will allow me to grow my career, it will show the community my ability to lead, and it will help me further develop the future for me and my family.

What are some of the main issues you plan to address?

Griffith:  Along with the issues already addressed in my goals, officer safety is always a main issue. Also, recruitment and retention are an issue. Unless you have worked in the first responder field for a while, it’s hard to get the whole picture of what these folks go through physically and mentally. In late 2023, I proposed, and worked together with the county council. We were able to restructure, and use federal funds and the detention center funds that were not Barnwell County tax line-items. This allowed us to get up to the South Carolina State Assessment levels. However, if we don’t keep pace each year, we will not be able to recruit or retain the personnel we have invested Barnwell County Citizens funds and Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office time and funds into. We need to be able to keep what we have before we ask for more. 

Training is always a high priority issue. Training from the start is needed. Officer safety and how to be professional and respectful to the public. Constant evolution with tactics and technology, along with policy training (use of force, failure to intervene, etc.) are critical.

Gunnells:  I  believe we must have more efficient response times and a plan to build more positive relationships with the public, especially the youth that are considered at risk by offering mentoring programs. We must build better relationships with other law enforcement agencies, have more productive and proactive patrols, more resources for investigations, a plan to decrease the drug trade, and we must lower the overall crime rate in Barnwell County.

How will you build a relationship or build trust with the community you serve?

Griffith:  The groundwork for trust building has been laid through our Community Relation incentives and the continuous work will be on-going, without interference or delay. Failure in this mission is NOT an option. As I mentioned, our Sheriff’s Office partners, the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office team, and I have great faith in our ability to continue to work side by side in what I consider the best citizen/law enforcement co-effort of building trust in the area, if not the state.

Gunnells:  Under my administration we would be more transparent. We will keep families informed about investigations. We will sponsor more events for the public to participate in. We will offer mentor programs for our youth. I will personally visit people in the community to ensure that their law enforcement needs are being met. The people of Barnwell County deserve to get the service for which they pay.

What are three major issues you think need to be fixed or addressed across the county?

Griffith:  First, I must go back to gangs, drugs, and community relations. I would like a Drug and Gang Task Force Unit and we have a proposal to launch if the right grant for Barnwell County opens. We have tried; however, it hasn’t been awarded to us so far. As far as Community Relations, from what I have observed, the community wants to be involved as much as we want them to. 

Second, TRUST. I need the citizens of Barnwell County’s help with information. It might be a drive by shooting, a murder, a missing person, a drug house. We are looking into technology to make the tips anonymous due to Crimestoppers not being able to provide that service to us currently. However, if anyone knows something that is vital to an investigation, please help. If you don’t want to talk to Law Enforcement, tell a Pastor, a teacher, a trusted family member or friend to pass the information anonymously. I know it’s scary, but when no one gives any information on a shooting at a party when there were two hundred people there, the shootings won’t stop.

Third, Human Trafficking, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse are also major issues that are present. These are being addressed through the State Agencies and local agencies like Axis I, as well as ongoing Law Enforcement training.

Gunnells:  Response times, community relations, and accountability.

What is your first priority if elected? 

Griffith:  Praying for guidance from the Good Lord because no person can do this job without Him! To lead in the best manner to keep all safe and to keep the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office Team improving as they have been, to better serve and protect as sworn.

Gunnells: My first priority is to begin building a rapport with the citizens of Barnwell County and the employees of Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office as well as begin to implement changes and address the challenges that have been identified.

What are some short term and long term goals if elected? 


Short term: To have even more interaction with the community, especially the youth. Please bring the youth to our events and please invite us to your youth events.

Long Term: Continue to reduce crime. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) compiles a book on crime statistics per year, per city, per county, and state agencies. If you look online (SLED Statistics) and click on the SLED website and go to the year you want to look at. These yearbooks of statistics are very detailed and accurate. My years as Sheriff are 2021, 2022, 2023-present. The 2021 stats were published in October of 2022, the 2022 stats were published in November of 2023, so I would guess the stats for 2023 will be out this fall. In both 2021 and 2022, if you scroll down near the top to the summaries, you will see that in both years statewide trends show crime in the state was down.

  • In 2021, the Barnwell violent crime rate was down 46%.
  • In 2021, on page 182, shows Barnwell County Arrest rates, this includes the city’s statistics.
  • In 2021, on page 252, shows the breakdown of 2020 vs 2021 index crime.
  • In 2022, on page 186, shows Barnwell County arrest rates, this includes the city’s statistics.
  • In 2022, on page 256, shows the breakdown of 2021 vs 2022 index crime.

Please be aware some cases in each of those years have been solved so the rates should show a difference now.

Some stats from the Sheriff’s Office CAD system show some interesting information:

The Sheriff’s Office response time is computer documented at 7 min 13 sec. Of course, this is an average of calls where the deputy is on scene immediately, such as a traffic stop or escort versus a call where the deputy is in Kline and must travel to the other side of Williston.

Another stat of interest is that in 2023, Central Dispatch answered the phone 70,806 times.

Some stats such as the three overdose death cases where arrests were made are not available at this time.

I have mentioned this to emphasize the importance that the Barnwell Sheriff's Office should respond to your call in a timely manner. The Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office will make all attempts to solve all cases, big or small. And the long-term goal is to get the crime rate on a continuous downward trend and keep improving the course of the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office to best serve all of the finest citizens in the State of South Carolina.


Short-term goals are to build a rapport with the people in the county and begin bridging gaps between the public and law enforcement, place people in positions that will best suit the department and the citizens of the county, ensure standards within the Sheriff’s office are met, address any personnel issues and fill any vacancies in office, etc.

Long-term goals are to meet with leaders to implement positive overall change in Barnwell County’s law enforcement culture, work with state leaders about bringing a mental health and drug rehab center to Barnwell County, and to bring the overall crime rate including drug, violent, and property crime rates below the national average in Barnwell County.”