Three fatal shootings during the annual Memorial Day weekend Bikefest has fueled a perception that violent crime is skyrocketing. But annual violent crime in Myrtle Beach has remained steady with a few deviations as the city’s population continues to grow.
When it comes to crime statistics from Memorial Day weekend, which includes the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest, the numbers bounce like a basketball.
Even with three of the city’s four homicides this year recorded on Saturday of that weekend, Robert Brame, a crime expert, warns against reading too much into those fluctuations.
“When you deal with really small numbers, little changes in small number amount to big percentage changes. I always caution people against drawing conclusions about what’s going on with crime over a short period of time,” Brame said and noted crime should be studied over decades to draw solid conclusions.
“It’s not helpful to Myrtle Beach for there to be a crime spree like the one that happened that weekend, the Memorial Day weekend,” Brame said. “That’s a different matter from what’s going on with the overall crime in the area. You can have a crime spree at any given place at any given time . . . every story is different; every killer’s motive is unique.”
But local officials are not waiting decades to draw conclusions about crime during the Memorial Day weekend.
Instead they are using money collected through the city’s tourism sales tax to pay for more police officers, making plans to alter traffic patterns, to combat a lawlessness mentality of attendees, and using Gov. Nikki Haley’s backing to push to end the annual event.
“I think Myrtle Beach is as safe as any other tourist beach in the southeast, but I couldn’t recommend anybody coming for Memorial Day until we get that fixed. Any other day it’s just as safe,” 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. “I can promise you next year things will be different from a law enforcement perspective.”
Brad Dean, president and CEO of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce said the shootings Memorial Day weekend were isolated in a “safe and welcoming community.”
“The lawlessness we experienced during Memorial Day weekend created an unsafe environment and disrupts what should be an ongoing celebration of our true American heroes, amidst parades, picnics, backyard barbeques and family-friendly fun,” Dean said.
By the numbers
The increase of three murders this Memorial Day weekend from none for the previous five years is not as significant as it sounds, said Brame, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina.
There were two murders in 2006 and one murder each in 2007 and 2008. But the May 25, 2008, murder gained more attention than others.
It occurred when 20-year-old Coastal Carolina University student Corey Brooks was gunned down during a dispute with three local teens over a parking space at a home on Third Avenue North in the city. Two of the teens each served prison sentences, while the shooter, Keion Griffin is serving life in prison.
That year was also when city officials sought and later implemented a helmet law and stricter noise ordinances to curb the influx of bikers that often take over the area for up to three weeks during May. Later, state Supreme Court officials overturned the helmet law, but many bikers, mostly those who attend the Harley-Davidson Spring Rally, avoided the city limits during their travels.
To get an accurate picture of crime rates, Brame said, they must be studied over decades. But when a murder or crime spree occurs, its makes people question the safety of a specific area.
“Murder is statistically a rare phenomenon. Murder is a very dramatic, scary crime that happens for many complicated reasons, but murder is also the best measured crime,” said Brame, who noted his father was robbed 25 years ago while on vacation in Myrtle Beach.
“The crime rate numbers you see from police departments, those numbers are usually not good at discussing short rate changes,” Brame said. “ . . . There are some crimes that are very well reported to the police. Homicide is well reported, but it’s rare.”
Robberies, burglaries and larcenies are often under reported, he said.
“You have to look at longer term picture to get an accurate representation,” Brame said. “Go back to early mid 1990s and compare to now.”
But crime statistics for the Memorial Day weekend weren’t kept during its early years.
The numbers also don’t show an accurate representation of what happens because some victims are unwilling to cooperate with police, Myrtle Beach police Chief Warren Gall said.
“We see a large increase in crime that occurs when people make really poor choices, not only in who they choose to associate with, but what types of activities they get involved in,” Gall said. “Sexual assaults and robberies are commonly reported, and yet the complaining victim or witness refuses to assist with the details, or refuses to follow through to assist with the investigation. It generates a statistic with no hope for closure.”
In Myrtle Beach there were seven robberies this Memorial Day weekend, compared to previous years when the numbers peaked in 2007 with 18 robberies reported; 2008 when 15 were reported and 2011 when seven were recorded.
Overall annual crime rates since 2007 showed officers responded to more robbery reports in 2008 with 217 reported, followed by 195 in 2012 and 189 in 2010. As of June 30, there have been 92 robberies reported in the city this year.
“Even though some of these figures are down from 2007 levels you can certainly do better and you can bet the City of Myrtle Beach will do better next year,” Richardson said. “If you mix in a lot of alcohol and a lot of drugs you are going to have a more violent weekend.”
Because murder draws attention, officials said people jump to conclusions about the lack of safety in the area and that police were not enforcing laws during that time, but Richardson said he disagrees with that thinking. There were 220 law enforcement personnel that came to Myrtle Beach to help local officers deal with the anticipated crowds.
“I believe there were plenty of police and they were prepared,” Richardson said. “I don’t think this is a situation where you can attack with police in the City of Myrtle Beach. You will have to expand it out. . . . It’s not necessarily the bikers, it’s the hanger-ons who follow the bikes. I think those guys cause a lot of the problems.”
Officials estimated that more than 250,000 people were in Myrtle Beach during the holiday weekend, which gave criminals the opportunity to blend in and overwhelm police, he said. Crime in Myrtle Beach does increase when so many people are in town, just as Brazil is experiencing a swell in population and crime because of the ongoing World Cup, he said.
“If you are intent on doing bad things you are going to follow a big event so you can get lost in the crowd,” Richardson said. “There’s also the element of people looking to do bad things because of all the people who are there.”
No matter the crowd, Dean said the three deaths from Memorial Day should serve as a wake-up call that something has to be done to curb violence during that time.
“While we can rightfully be disappointed and frustrated by what took place in Myrtle Beach during this past Memorial Day Weekend, we can’t really be too surprised,” Dean said. “The events and activities that transpire each year during Memorial Day weekend, combined with the attitude by some criminals that they can ignore our laws, creates an environment of lawlessness that is unsafe and wholly inappropriate.”
Myrtle Beach officials also point to a different mentality of visitors during Memorial Day weekend versus those in town for July 4th or Labor Day.
“People go off with people they just met to party, or buy drugs and end up being robbed, beaten, or both,” Gall said, referring to Memorial Day visitors. “It is a result of a mentality that is not healthy for this community, but one we face with the seasonal influx of visitors.”
Crime does spike when a large number of people come to town and they have “a general attitude of non-compliance with even the simplest and basic code of conduct for human beings interacting with other human beings,” Gall said referring to some Memorial Day visitors.
Richardson also noted visitors during Memorial Day view their trip to the beach differently than most tourists.
“Many young people come to the beach with the thoughts of no rules so they’re quicker to break the law,” Richardson said. “Anytime you have an influx of young people you are going to have more crime.”
By recognizing the challenges officials face in curbing the party mentality on the Memorial Day weekend, officials believe they can curb its violence.
“We are working on traffic and pedestrian plans which include an increased law enforcement presence aimed solely at addressing the street party mentality, which tends to attract those visitors with criminal intentions who prey upon their fellow Bikefest attendees,” Gall said. “In addition, we intend to address the traffic congestion and blatant disregard for the traffic laws to reduce the likelihood of collisions which result in injury and death, and to increase the safety of the motorists using the roads attending to their normal business.”
Myrtle Beach officials have previously altered traffic patterns and had more officers on duty during the motorcycle weekends and they say they will continue to do so to keep residents and visitors safe all year in the town.
“Any crime is too much crime, regardless of the time of year, but the situation we experience each Memorial Day Weekend is an ongoing problem that won’t get better unless we resolve to make major changes. We should not allow our destination’s identity to be defined by one out-of-control weekend, regardless of the circumstances,” Dean said.
“The environment during Memorial Day Weekend is one of lawlessness, rowdiness and an attitude by some visitors that our laws don’t apply to them. That must change. We are confident that our local governments and law enforcement agencies will soon unveil a plan that will protect our residents and visitors, and quell the problems we’ve faced in recent years.”
Contact TONYA ROOT at 444-1723 or on Twitter @tonyaroot.