Joe Hill talks police reforms

Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill talks about the challenges facing a force that is about half the size it should be. Photo by Janet Morgan/

Horry County won’t defund the police.

Neither will Myrtle Beach, Conway or North Myrtle Beach. Despite a national conversation about shifting money away from law enforcement, local governments have been increasing their public safety budgets in recent years. Yet the conversation about police reform is one local agencies haven’t shied away from. Just this week, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Amy Prock, Conway Mayor Barbara Blain-Bellamy, Horry County Police Chief Joe Hill and other local leaders participated in a virtual town hall where they discussed the calls for defunding law enforcement.

“I had to ask the question, ‘What does that mean to you?’” Hill said. “And if you ask five people, you’ll get five different answers. So we are very supportive in that we recognize that more money needs to go toward social services. Yes, we support that. Yes, we support that more money needs to go toward education. But you can’t sacrifice your public law enforcement as a result of that. … We work hand in hand with the school system. We work hand in hand with social services. … When you kind of boil it down and weed through the conversation, what you really find is they want to reimagine law enforcement and the delivery of service. Can we do better in our service delivery as a profession? Yes. This profession is ever evolving. We’re constantly changing and we have to.”

But in practical terms, what does reimagining the police look like?

Police officials point out that their training methods have changed in the last decade. At the HCPD, the department has added crisis intervention classes. Officers now wear body cameras. At the state level, part of the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy’s instruction focuses on de-escalation.

“You’d want to defuse a situation,” academy spokeswoman Maj. Florence McCants said. “You’d want to talk to the people, see what’s going on and try to facilitate as best you can to help the person.”

Typically, anywhere from 1,200-1,400 officers are trained at the academy each year. The academy’s training itself is reviewed every year two years.

Most police departments have policies that guide their use of force, according to the National Institute of Justice, and McCants said the use of force continuum is also honed in at the academy.

“The officer would always want to stay one step ahead of the threat level itself,” McCants said. “So there’s certain things that you will start off and sort of work your way up as the [situation] changes. … If the situation escalates, then the officer wants to escalate their training as well. They want to go up one step above. But when the person is calm and comes down, the officer needs to do the same.”

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police on May 25 touched off protests across the country, including in Conway and Myrtle Beach. It also led some law enforcement officials to reexamine their policies. Floyd died when an officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

The HCPD already had a policy against restricting air or blood flow to the brain, but after Floyd’s death the agency prioritized that policy in its manual.

“Officers have a duty to intervene when someone is injured, whether you caused that injury or you come upon an injury,” Hill said. “Officers have a duty to stop a fellow officer from committing a crime or doing something against policy. … These are the things that have been in our policy, we just rearranged them and took them from different policies and put them as a primary, here’s the first thing you look at when you look at our policy and procedure manual.”

One topic of discussion at Monday’s virtual town hall was about community policing, and why officers are no longer walking a beat.

In an interview a day after the town hall, Hill said some people have an outdated view of what that term means: It’s not Sheriff Andy Taylor meandering through Mayberry on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Horry County is the largest county by land mass in the state, spanning more than 1,200 square miles. 

For Hill’s agency, the term “community policing” means sending officers to local events, such as town halls, HOA meetings, cookouts and National Night Out. Those gatherings have largely disappeared because of COVID-19, but he said the idea is to try to interact with the public in a positive way, an interaction outside of responding to a crime.

“Being accessible to your community is community policing,” he said.

Take Monday night’s town hall, for example.

Mia Angelo is the activist who organized Monday’s virtual event. She also helped set up a Black Lives Matter protest at the Market Common earlier this year. She said she hopes the town hall will help continue the Black Lives Matter movement during a time when large gatherings aren’t recommended, and she wanted to bring residents’ concerns to law enforcement.

“The last thing we want it to be is a trend,” Angelo said, “so we want to keep the conversation going.”

Two days earlier, hundreds of people had shown up to support police during the Defend Your Police rally at the North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex.

“I am sick and tired of these men and women going out every day to keep us safe and they are made out to be the bad guys,” event organizer Tracey Lutz-Danka said. “No police officer should ever feel that their life is at risk when they are doing their job.”

North Myrtle Beach police, Myrtle Beach police, Horry County police, the Horry County Sheriff’s Office and the state Department of Natural Resources all sent uniformed officers to the rally.

The Defend Your Police rally comes at a time when some critics who believe there’s a racial bias in policing are pushing to defund police departments.

The phrase “defund the police” is used by some protestors who want to see police departments abolished, but many others use the term to advocate only for reducing police department budgets and redistributing the extra funds towards other underfunded social services like mental health care and housing as a way to prevent people from turning to crime in the first place.

Despite the national concerns about police funding, there have been no major cuts to local departments to redistribute those dollars. In some cases, there have been millions in budget increases.

In North Myrtle Beach, the public safety department has grown over the past four years from just under $15 million in the fiscal year ending in 2018 to $17.8 million in this year. But that jump was primarily due to an increase in firefighters and EMTs. The number of officers has remained steady, with 61 officers and 10 detectives in the city’s FY18 budget, and 60 officers and 10 detectives this year.

“We’ve remained at about 60 police officers spread out over three shifts,” said city spokesman Pat Dowling, who pointed out the city’s population of 16,000 residents swells to around 100,000 on any given day during the peak summer months. “Rather than staff it up to meet a population during the city’s tourism months, we’re still in the middle of the two, and it works for us.”

During the rally Saturday, Mayor Marilyn Hatley promised those in attendance that the North Myrtle Beach police wouldn’t be defunded.

“Our police officers do not sit on the sidelines,” Hatley said. “They are out in the public with our community. They make visits to our visitors. They make visits to the people who live here.”

To the south, Myrtle Beach has been adding officers every year.

In 2018, the city’s police budget was at $29.7 million and included funding for 308 officers. Last year, Myrtle Beach hit its peak police budget of $34.69 million, including 328 officers, and Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea credited city council members for prioritizing public safety in their budget.

Because of the coronavirus, the city’s police budget went down to $31.78 million this year. Thanks to a recent grant, the city still added another 10 officers, giving the department 338 law enforcement officers.

And in Horry County, the police budget has jumped from $94 million to $105.8 million over the past four years. Hill noted the county has made investments in new vehicles, vests and salary increases.

But manpower has long been a challenge for the HCPD. County leaders just accepted a grant to add 15 positions. Still, Hill said staffing is about half of where it should be for a county this size.

The chief also stressed that the department should reflect the community. That means hiring people from different backgrounds and education levels, but also people who look like the residents the HCPD serves.

“I want a very diverse workforce to balance what we do out here,” Hill said. “And to balance one another. Imagine working on a police shift when you have somebody who served in the military, somebody who has a PhD, somebody worked at a fast food restaurant at an inner-city community, all on the same shift. They can share experiences.”

That’s part of reimagining the police as well.

Getting that workforce, though, is a challenge. Hill often looks to the military, an already diverse group, but those bases have been wary about allowing police recruiters there because of COVID-19. And there’s another struggle.

“There’s a phenomenon called Black and Blue,” said Hill, who is Black. “You have Black officers or officers of color that are torn with the profession and also the pressures they get from their community and their family. I’m guilty of it as well. I’ve got family members that see it differently than I do, and we have very spirited discussions about high profile cases across the country.”

Cpl. Dwight Tomlin is one of the officers helping Hill recruit new faces. Between his time in the military police and civilian law enforcement, the patrol supervisor has spent about three decades wearing a badge.

Before the pandemic, Tomlin, who is Black, would visit military bases and historically Black colleges and universities to recruit potential officers. How much the job paid was always the top question, but sometimes he was asked about stories on the news and about the police response. He talked about the importance of officers being prepared AND how to handle difficult situations the right way. He’s also frank about the toll of the work and the type of demeanor the job demands. 

“I’m honest with them,” he said. “I tell people all the time, ‘If you’re coming to this for the money, this is not the place for you.’ Because it’s not going to add up. Because you’re going to encounter some things that there’s no money you could pay [to be worth it]. … You have to have the mindset, the heart and all that has to line up.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236


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