For the past few months, suspected cable thieves in Columbia, S.C., have been visited by Time Warner Cable employees accompanied by off-duty members of two local sheriff's departments.
The cable workers, acting on hotline tips and other information pointing to scofflaws, were accompanied by lawmen in an effort to build a case against thieves from the first home visit.
But now that program is in jeopardy, and the cable operator thinks politics are to blame.
Lexington County Sheriff James Metts has told his deputies to stop the off-duty work after one resident complained following a deputy's visit.
According to local press accounts, a consumer who called Time Warner Cable seeking help in installing equipment in the home of a relative became angry when that call was answered by security supervisors from the MSO and an off-duty sheriff's deputy. All of the visitors identified themselves.
The consumer was upset because the cable representatives entered rooms other than the one where the TV set was located, the reports said.
Time Warner Cable public affairs vice president Bud Tibshrany said he was aware of only the one publicized complaint. The cable company has not heard directly from Metts, he added.
He said the operator learned the sheriff was pulling the plug when news outlets began calling for comment.
The operator was surprised at the top cop's action. The anti-theft campaign-and Time Warner's employment of off-duty officers-was authorized in advance, Tibshrany said.
"These are not random visits," the system executive added. "We are acting on tips from callers to a tips phone line and other sources.
"When wholesale distributors [of unauthorized set-top boxes] are prosecuted, we track the clientele. We felt we'd have better success gaining entry with the officers."
Local Time Warner officials met with representatives of both the Lexington and Richland County sheriff's departments before hiring officers for the theft program.
From Time Warner's standpoint, the program has been effective. In Richland County, 200 escorted visits have resulted in the seizure of 150 unauthorized boxes, according to the operator.
In South Carolina, sheriff is an elected position and officers are sensitive to constituent complaints, Tibshrany noted. Metts is up for re-election this year.
The Lexington sheriff's office did not return calls seeking comment.
Tibshrany said Time Warner is re-evaluating its theft approach but will seek meetings with the sheriff. The operator wants to stress to law enforcement that cable theft is no different than stealing other valuable commodities.
"We hope to try to continue the partnership in a way that's mutually satisfactory," he said.