Deputy collapses during training, dies

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James Kirk Jr. a 28-year veteran of local law enforcement

By Greg Summers and Kayla Vaughn

Sheriff’s Deputy James Kirk Jr., a 28-year veteran of Lancaster County law enforcement, died Tuesday after he collapsed during firearms training. He was 57.
Kirk was rushed to Springs Memorial Hospital, where he later died from an apparent medical condition, according to a statement from sheriff’s Maj. Matt Shaw issued at 11:24 p.m. Tuesday. The specific cause of death has not been released.
The training was at a firing range on Kennel Lane in Lancaster and involved shooting rifles and handguns. It was more than just shooting at stationary targets and involved physical exertion, said sheriff’s spokesman Doug Barfield. The group had taken a break when Kirk collapsed around 7 p.m.
Barfield said he believes Kirk is the first sheriff’s officer to die on duty since Roy Hardin died of a heart attack in 2001.
Kirk had worked for the sheriff’s office since 2015, after spending 25 years at the Lancaster Police Department. He retired from the LPD as a detective lieutenant in special operations, at that time the department’s No. 2 job.
“James was the most phenomenal investigator I’ve ever seen,” said former Lancaster Police Chief Harlean Carter. “He was very intuitive and had a natural knack for being able to close a case.”
At the sheriff’s office, Kirk worked in the lobby most of the time, where he had a lot of contact with the public.
“He was a great guy who worked hard, not only here at the sheriff’s office, but also in the community,” Sheriff Barry Faile said.
“He was very good with people and with kids. A lot of parents would call him when they had personal things going on with their children, just to let him talk to them.”
Carter said she met Kirk in the early 1990s when she was being considered for a job at the police department.
“James was on the interview board,” she said, recalling how Kirk cracked a joke that day to put her at ease.
Kirk’s career path into police work was not typical. He was hired as a city custodian in December 1986. From there, he became an animal-control officer and then a patrol officer. In his years with the city police, Kirk also served as a school resource officer, a DARE officer, and a member of the department’s community-policing team.
“In the early 1990s, James came up with the idea for us to do a summer camp at Pardue Street Apartments [now Palmetto Place],” Carter said. “That one program allowed us to strengthen bonds with all of the residents there, especially the older ones.”
Rose through ranks
Kirk moved up through the ranks as an LPD detective, from corporal to sergeant to lieutenant. He retired as a city employee in December 2011.
As a detective, Carter said, Kirk’s strong people skills and “gut feeling” were definite assets.
“He knew lots of people around town and knew how to get pertinent information,” Carter said. “He really did know just about everybody.”
Lancaster Police Chief Scott Grant said Kirk was plugged into the local community in ways no one else was. “He was constantly being contacted by people. If something happened, he was going to hear about it,” Grant said.
Carter noted that Kirk was high-spirited, quick-witted and humorous.
“He was intense,” she said. “Kirk laughed hard and played hard. He’d say something funny and offbeat that would have us almost laughing in the floor.
“But at the same time, when James was serious, he was serious and everybody knew it.”
Kirk leaves behind his wife, three sons, a daughter and four grandchildren.
“He was a very devoted husband and father,” Carter said.
City’s pied piper       
Carter said Kirk also had a flair for the dramatic and had a love of music.
“People may not know this, but James was actually an extra in one of Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura movies,” Carter said.
When the 150-member Lancaster Youth Mass Choir was formed in 1991 as an outgrowth of the Lancaster High School Drama Club, Kirk was its director.   
“I started calling him the ‘Pied Piper of Lancaster’ because wherever he went, the kids would follow,” Carter said. “They were really drawn to him.”
This choir not only sang at local churches but performed across the Carolinas, as well as in Georgia, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Kirk talked about the choir in June 2014 before a reunion concert at Mt. Zion AME Zion Church.
Kirk told The Lancaster News the mass choir was a “saving grace” that had provided a sense of direction for teenagers who needed something positive in their lives.
“Where some of them thought they had no way out, they saw they did. They loved it,” Kirk said. “Before we sang a song, we looked for Scripture to know what we were singing about.”
Grant says Kirk was always involved in the community. “He always had an interest in helping young men learn different things and develop their character in a way he thought would be beneficial to them,” Grant said. “He was doing that back when nobody wanted to help.”
‘Great supporter’
One of those youth Kirk left a lasting impression on was Anita Harris.
She first met Kirk when she was in middle school. He was patrolling the Barr Street area, where she attended summer camp.
“I was dancing or showing out,” she said, “and he told me, ‘You ain’t nothing but an old Tasmanian Devil.’
“He always called me Taz after that and made sure I was staying out of trouble.”
Harris said Kirk always went the extra mile for every kid he met.
“He made sure I was on the right path and staying away from people who didn’t do me any good,” she said. “He has just been a great supporter of all of us and always wanted us to succeed and overcome whatever we were facing.”
She recalled Kirk’s ability to always make her laugh no matter the situation. When asked to describe him, she simply said, “He’s a genuine person – He’s just James.”
Crawford Funeral Home will be handling the arrangements for Kirk’s family.
Follow Kayla Vaughn on Twitter @kaybvaughn or contact her at (803) 283-1155. Follow Greg Summers on Twitter @GregSummersTLN or contact him at (803) 283-1156.