More police officers will be on and around Ocean Boulevard in the coming weeks after a spate of shootings and increased traffic.
City leaders and business owners gathered for a nearly four-hour meeting Wednesday to air out their issues and hear Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock discuss a plan to address their concerns.
The end result was city council members agreeing to declare the next three weekends as extraordinary events. The resolution falls short of the proposal from city staff seeking to declare every weekend through Labor Day as an extraordinary event.
The declaration allows Prock and City Manager John Pedersen to quickly address hot spots with corrective actions such as calling in outside law enforcement agencies for help and diverting traffic from the boulevard to Kings Highway. Traditionally, the city has declared high-volume weekends such as Memorial Day weekend and the dates of the Carolina Country Music Fest extraordinary events.
Council member and retired Myrtle Beach police officer Mike Lowder has argued repeatedly the city needs to “put boots on the ground” to deter crime. On Wednesday, Lowder repeated his argument as the nearly 100 people at the city council meeting applauded.
“It’s time to put the hammer down and it’s time to make people who want to come to Myrtle Beach and show their rear end go someplace else,” he said.
The recent Ocean Boulevard shootings include a shootout at Mr. Joe White Avenue on May 17. There was another shooting on May 24 at 12th Avenue North that left four injured. One person was killed in a shooting on May 25 at 15th Avenue South and one man has been charged with murder. Another shooting was reported on June 7 at 21st Avenue North.
Additionally, business leaders complained about the noise of the trucks cruising the boulevard on Saturday night and the lack of a police presence.
Ben Robinson, who operates a golf cart rental business at 3rd Avenue South and Ocean Boulevard, said the noise was so loud he was unable to take or receive phone calls. And, he said, hours passed without him seeing an officer.
Rachel Beckerman of the SkyWheel said her business made three calls to the police department over the weekend and it took 20-45 minutes for an officer to respond. One of the calls, she said, was to help a 15-month-old child found alone in a bathroom.
“If you’re telling me there’s someone on every block, it should not take 20 minutes to get there,” she said.
Prock said the department had more than 1,500 calls for service over the weekend. She took issue with statements she has heard accusing officers of downgrading charges.
“They were being cops. They were not being asked to do anything less, not by me, not by council, not by anybody,” she said. “You may not have seen officers on every block, but I assure you there was plenty of police work being done.”
Prock pointed out the calls for service on weekends from mid-May to mid-June in 2019 and 2020 nearly mirror each other. There were 8,188 calls for service on weekends since May 15 to June 14 this year compared to 68 more on the same weekends last year.
But, Prock said, the calls were different. She said there are more calls for disturbances, fights and mass gatherings this year compared to last year.
“Obviously a lot of things have changed,” she said comparing this summer to previous summers. “We’ve never gone through this type of pandemic. We’ve never gone through this influx we’ve seen this year.”
In addition to the pandemic, Prock said the attitudes are different given the unrest caused by protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The resolution, presented by Pedersen, states since May “the city has observed disorderly and unlawful behavior that is more intense and disruptive than in previous years.” The resolution continues to state “large crowds on and around Ocean Boulevard have exhibited a general disregard for the rule of law as well as social distancing guidelines as well as a similar disregard for traffic safety laws on Ocean Boulevard and surrounding streets including Kings Highway and adjoining avenues.”
Pedersen said the unlawful behavior is compounded by the pandemic with cases continuing to increase in Horry County since May 16 accounting for 34 of the state’s 607 deaths.
Prock said the city’s policing plan includes having about three foot patrol officers in 11 zones along the boulevard from 21st Avenue North to 17th Avenue South. Officers with outside agencies such as the Highway Patrol will be charged with patrolling side and back streets between the boulevard and Kings Highway. Other officers will be charged with maintaining order on Kings Highway.
Depending on the need, Prock said, there should be 80-100 officers in and around the boulevard on weekends throughout the summer.
She added the traffic diversion plan is used to “calm” and ease congestion. It includes flushing vehicle traffic off the boulevard between 16th Avenue North and 3rd Avenue South beginning at 9 p.m. Fridays through Sundays.
Before voting to approve the resolution, the council adjourned to a closed-door session to discuss “potential legal claims that may arise” from an ordinance allowing Pedersen and Prock to decide to close the boulevard to vehicles and pedestrians if needed, require hotels and retail shop owners to hire private security guards, temporarily halt operations of retail sales businesses and establish a curfew in parts of the city.
The city has a curfew ordinance on the books requiring those under 18 years old to be off the streets by midnight.
More than 15 business owners and residents spoke during the meeting opposing the ordinance.
Calling the business owners the “backbone” of the city, Mayor Brenda Bethune invited them to join a continued discussion about the proposed ordinance at a future city council workshop session.
“We want to be heard, to be included,” said Michelle Kerscher of the Gay Dolphin, who asked the city council not to close the boulevard on weekend nights as proposed in the ordinance. “You will have businesses that don’t survive this.”
Kerscher and other business leaders have asked the city for more police officers to be visible on the boulevard. She said a former council member told her privately that if the boulevard business owners didn’t establish a tax district allowing them to pay for officers, they could expect to see a continued decline in city services.
“We are the eyes of the city,” Gay Dolphin’s Buz Plyler said of the shopkeepers helping officers by pointing out witnesses and evidence.
Plyler reminded the council that the boulevard business community makes up 57 acres and pays $1.675 million in tax revenue compared to the 114 acres at Broadway at the Beach generating $1.332 million in taxes and the 102 acres in The Market Common generating $1.2 million in taxes.
“We are a revenue stream. A great revenue stream that generates more taxes per acre than any other part of the city,” he said.
Former Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said it’s been a tough year given the heavy rain in late August, a hurricane in September, COVID-19 shutdowns and now the recent controversy. As the owner of Myrtle Waves Water Park, Lazarus asked the city leaders to commit to even more officers on foot than in Prock’s plan and take the pedestrian barricades down on Ocean Boulevard.
“When I told you we heard you, we did hear you,” Bethune said repeating an invitation to the business community to attend a future workshop session with the city council.