Though registration is still months away, candidates are already gearing up to run for the office of Greenwood County’s top cop.

Incumbent Sheriff Dennis Kelly said he’ll be running again, seeking a second term that he said will allow him to continue building trust with the community. He said he’s proud of the work he’s done as head of the Greenwood County Sheriff’s Office and wants the chance to keep at it.

“I think the citizens deserve to have ethical and honorable officers working for them,” he said. “I think that’s the key ingredient to having a good community — that the people can trust the officers who work for them.”

Before being elected sheriff in 2016, Kelly was a 29-year veteran of the state Highway Patrol where he retired as a lieutenant supervising seven counties. Now two of Kelly’s former lieutenants from the sheriff’s office are gearing up to challenge his seat in the office.

Longtime narcotics investigator Lt. Chad Cox left the sheriff’s office May 3 in order to explore a run for the sheriff’s seat. He said it’s impossible to say for sure what might happen between today and when filing opens for the election, but that he and his family are strongly exploring his bid for the office.

“I’ve done this for 20 years, and I’ve dedicated my life to it,” he said. “It’s given me some insight into the problems we need to fix.”

In his years of service, Cox said his experience investigating drugs, gangs and shootings has given him a unique view into how to fight community violence and address the shootings that have plagued some of Greenwood’s neighborhoods.

Currently, Cox isn’t working at any agency and is spending time with his family while they explore this run for office, he said.

Campaign disclosure documents filed June 2 with the State Ethics Commission showed Cox was exploring a bid, reporting early contributions of $600 to his campaign. While Cox would only say he’s strongly exploring this run for office, he said he wanted to ensure all the proper paperwork is filed in a timely manner.

Kelly was the only other person who had filed campaign disclosure documents.

Former GCSO Lt. John Long, who now works as a sergeant managing school resource officers and managing accreditation at the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office, made his intentions known early that he wanted to run for Kelly’s seat. Long resigned Dec. 29, 2017 from GCSO after Kelly put him on leave in October 2017 pending the outcome of a State Law Enforcement Division investigation.

The investigation looked into allegations Long had bought items for the office through a business he had part-ownership of, and after the monthslong investigation, 10th Circuit Solicitor David Wagner said there wasn’t enough evidence to support criminal charges against Long.

Long, then a member of the office’s command staff, resigned when Kelly said he would return from leave with a demotion to the uniform patrol division. In January, Kelly filed paperwork with the state Criminal Justice Academy saying the separation was “due to misconduct” and alleging Long had acted dishonestly.

Kelly’s allegations led to a meeting where Long and Kelly presented their cases to the state Law Enforcement Training Council, which reviewed Long’s case and voted unanimously to clear him of the misconduct allegation, but put him on a two-year professional probation and required him to go through 7.5 hours a year of ethics training at his expense.

When Long resigned he said he believed Kelly demoted him for his intentions to run in the 2020 election, but Long said Wednesday that his bid for sheriff isn’t to seek revenge.

“My entire career I have told everybody that it was my desire to run for sheriff,” Long said. “Luckily, I’ve had people reach out to me that encouraged me to run.”

He said his interest in leading stems from a concern over community safety and a desire to bring in new ideas.

“I feel like our community is ready for the next generation of leadership,” he said. “There’s different tactics out there we should be using.”

Though no one is officially a candidate in this election yet, these early signs show there’s interest in challenging Kelly’s bid for reelection. Filing for the sheriff’s race opens noon March 16, 2020 and closes noon March 30, 2020.

Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.