MYRTLE BEACH — Any crime is too much crime.
That’s one thing all candidates running for election in Myrtle Beach agree on. Where they differ is whether Myrtle Beach has a higher tendency to see violent crime.
All four incumbents running for reelection said crime information released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics website is skewed because Myrtle Beach’s population grows exponentially during the summer tourism season and the rate is based on the city’s permanent population. But some challengers said they believe the city is trying to downplay what they say is a major crime issue.
“Crime in Myrtle Beach is reported on 29,800 permanent residents, when we are all aware that our numbers grow to a daily average of 80,000 and swells to over 350,000 at the peak of tourist season,” said Mayor John Rhodes, who is seeking his third term.
Both Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics and numbers from the Myrtle Beach Police Department show a decrease in the number of reported incidents of violent crime from 2010 to 2011, but then an increase from 2011 to 2012.
According to the FBI statistics website, there were 472 reported incidents of violent crime in the city of Myrtle Beach in 2012. The FBI estimated the population to be about 28,000.
In 2011, FBI statistics show the city to have had 443 reported incidents of violent crime with an estimated population of about 27,500. FBI statistics show 483 incidents of violent crime reported in 2010 with a population of 32,907.
The FBI estimated population figures for city and county jurisdictions by applying the 2012 state growth rate to the updated 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data. The 2012 state growth rates are calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 and 2012 provisional state/national population estimates, according to the FBI website. .
Councilman Mike Lowder, who worked for more than 20 years in law enforcement in Myrtle Beach and Horry County, said consider the way things are reported. Sometimes an assault and battery arrest – or a fist-fight between two people – can be classified as violent crime. Lowder is seeking his second term.
Council candidate Keith VanWinkle, who is running on an anti-crime platform, said the tourists who come to town – increasing the population in the summer – aren’t the ones committing the crimes.
“According to incumbent City Council members, the crime problem is the result of our tourists,” VanWinkle said. “On the same day this comment was made, 70 percent of the arrests in Myrtle Beach were local citizens and 20 percent were from neighboring cities. Crime is local and it must be stopped now.”
Council candidate Jackie Vereen also said city officials’ argument for what they called skewed data doesn’t hold water.
“Some individuals like to claim the crime statistics are skewed due to the influx of tourists; however that does not explain or rationalize why our crime rate is at least double our neighboring communities who also have tourist-based economy,” she said.
There were 19 reported violent crimes in Surfside Beach in 2012, according to FBI statistics, which estimated the town’s population as being nearly 4,000. There was no data available for North Myrtle Beach in 2012.
According to information from the Myrtle Beach Police Department, 403 violent crimes were reported this year as of Wednesday. The city’s violent crime count includes murders, rape, robbery and aggravated assault
There were 420 violent crimes reported in 2012, according to a 2012 crime index released by Myrtle Beach police in January. That number was up from 389 reported violent crimes in 2011. In 2010 there were 483 reported violent crimes, one of which was a murder.
In 2012, there were five reported murders, up from four in 2011. There was one murder reported in Myrtle Beach this year as of Wednesday.
Chief Warren Gall told The Sun News in January that the nearly 8 percent increase in reported violent crimes from 2011 to 2012 was caused by an “increasing number of criminals amongst us.”
“Residents should be concerned about crime in general, and find ways to assist law enforcement in our efforts to reduce victimization, but not place too much emphasis on the statistics,” he said. “These are reported crimes, and do not always accurately reflect crime trends or incidents of criminal activity. Some crimes go unreported, some crimes are falsely reported.”
Incumbents tout the establishment of several neighborhood watch programs as a way the city has moved to work with residents in Myrtle Beach to make their neighborhoods safer.
“We have grown our neighborhood meeting system from nine meetings to 23,” Councilman Randal Wallace said. Wallace is seeking his fourth term. “Where these meetings are strong, our crime rates have fallen. … The public is our best ally in fighting crime.”
All four incumbents voiced their happiness with the work the police department is doing to combat crime, and acknowledged more could be done.
Councilman Wayne Gray, who is running for his fourth term since first being elected to council in 1997, said there’s no one answer to ridding a city of crime. He was not in office from 2001 to 2005.
“Response to criminal activity is a multi-facet approach of a well-trained and equipped police force constantly where and how to deploy police resources, implementing crime-prevention efforts through neighborhood watch programs and second-chance programs for low-level juvenile offenders, better judicial enforcement and punishment and finally a vibrant economy that provides job growth, year-round employment and economic opportunity for all citizens,” Gray said.
Mayoral candidate Bill Howard said officers should be positioned in beach accesses, along Ocean Boulevard and in parking lots downtown during the times when crime is known to be higher.
“We also need to prosecute as many small crimes, that lead to the bigger crimes, as we can to help deter those from even wanting to operate in our city,” Howard said.
Mayoral candidate Robert Palmer said putting more part-time officers on duty during peak season would be another way to drive down crime rates. He said placing recent police academy graduates or retired officers on the streets part-time during those periods would not only deter crime, but would also not strain the budget.
“They [would be] given the more normal day-to-day, routine jobs,” he said. “This [frees] up the full-time force to concentrate on more significant public safety issues.”
Myrtle Beach city staff is looking to see if there is a need for increased police presence downtown during summer weekends. City Manager Tom Leath has asked the police department to review concerns downtown and recommend solutions – if it is determined any are needed.
Gall said while he does not believe having additional police downtown during summer weekends will solve any determined problems with crime, he said he sees value in having increased visibility and coverage to create a feeling of safety for the residents, business owners and visitors.
Mayoral candidate Jerrry Foutz questioned the amount of time police officers spend arresting prostitutes, an offense some call a victim-less crime.
“If the police are short-handed, why send officers out posing as ‘Johns’ to entrap prostitutes?” he said. “Preventing murders is more important than stamping out the world’s oldest profession.”
Foutz also said the city needs to work to get guns out of criminals’ hands, posting “gun-free zone” signs at city limits where those caught carrying guns without permits would face an automatic prison sentence.
“Have a buy-back program paying a premium for guns,” he said. “This would be cheaper than having our police investigate another murder or the death of a child caused by a careless parent as has happened two times recently.”
Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 5. If a runoff is necessary, it will be held Nov. 19. This is the first city election that voters will have to show photo identification to vote, as required by state law.