Myrtle Beach police Chief Warren Gall is leaving his position, and will stop his day-to-day duties immediately before the Memorial Day Bikefest rallies, one of the biggest events for Myrtle Beach law enforcement all year.
Mayor John Rhodes first confirmed the departure to The Sun News in a phone call Saturday morning, and city spokesman Mark Kruea later sent out a press release that said Gall’s last day in the office will be Thursday. He will remain a consultant to the city until November, the statement said.
Both Rhodes and the release said Gall is retiring. He has served the police department for 37 years.
Rhodes said he was alerted to the retirement on Friday. City Manager John Pedersen said Saturday afternoon that he had a conversation with Gall earlier this week “about his retirement and about his exit strategy.”
“The chief is a consummate professional, and I don’t know anyone with higher integrity and better character than [Gall]. He has done amazing work for the city and I definitely owe him a debt of gratitude,” Pedersen said.
Assistant Chief Amy Prock will serve as chief on an interim basis after Gall leaves.
In an email to The Sun News on Saturday, Gall declined to comment.
“I am welcoming back one of my Captains who was deployed to Afghanistan for almost a year,” Gall wrote. “This is his day.”
Gall’s departure comes as Myrtle Beach gears up for Memorial Day weekend bike rallies, which bring droves of visitors to the Grand Strand every year.
Pedersen said the city’s plan to deal with the event will not be affected as leadership changes at the head of the police department.
“The plan’s been in place for a long time now, and the chief has done a great job of mentoring the people who have worked under him, and we’re fully prepared to implement the plan and move forward,” Pedersen said.
Law enforcement pay particular attention to the event, during which there were eight shootings in 2014. The gun violence that year led to three deaths and seven injured. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley said that year that she wanted the event to end altogether.
Gall was chief as the city instituted a late-night traffic loop in the following years of Bikefest, which is designed to move bikers through the central part of Ocean Boulevard and then away from the coast. City officials said the altered traffic pattern, which will be in effect this year from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. during peak nights, was intended to cut down on pop-up parties in parking lots.
Last year, some attendees said heavy police presence during the event and aggressive towing of motorcycles was excessive, leading to calls to boycott the city. Mickey James, the leader of the local chapter of the NAACP, said he’s disputed some policing strategies Gall was a part of — including the traffic loop — but called the chief “disciplined.”
“I had some disagreements with him with a lot of things they did, including some of his decisions, but I didn’t let it get personal,” James said Saturday.
This year, Myrtle Beach is preparing for Bikefest having already seen some gun violence. Easter weekend, which featured an unexpectedly large influx of visitors due to good weather and coinciding spring break schedules, kicked off a string of shootings over a week that has caused city council to reexamine policing strategies.
On April 25 with the city council meeting immediately after those shootings, Gall said police were struggling with “the ease at which these young people pull out a gun and indiscriminately fire it in crowds, or at crowds, or up into the air, and then flee into the crowd.”
Gall also said that day that he was wary of zero-tolerance policing, and that high rates of custodial arrests had the side effect of taking officers off the streets to process detainees. To alter the climate there, he urged changes among the businesses along Ocean Boulevard — who have since been targeted for some of their raunchier merchandise and for renting mopeds to reckless drivers.
“You can’t arrest your way to a family-friendly atmosphere,” he said.
But City Councilman Mike Lowder, himself a former Myrtle Beach police officer, openly questioned Gall’s style of policing in the April meeting, saying officers should arrest and detain rule-breakers for smaller infractions along Ocean Boulevard, the main thoroughfare next to the beach.
“I understand your philosophy. I really do. Do I agree with it? Maybe not,” Lowder said.
“I don’t think anyone on this council is looking for zero tolerance,” he continued. “That’s not what we’re looking for. But I know me personally, I firmly believe that one of the ways that we can improve that to some extent is by more aggressive enforcement and more custodial arrests, simply because with this philosophy, when people … are on that boulevard area and they see people going to jail, that changes their mindset a little bit.”
Lowder could not be reached on his cell phone Saturday.
Pedersen told The Sun News that he has not received any specific direction from city council encouraging a change in police leadership.
“Council understands that that’s not their role, and it’s my role to hire the staff and to manage the staff,” he said.
Pedersen added, “This is entirely my decision,” referring to the decision “to talk to the chief about an exit strategy.”
In the early morning hours of Saturday, Gall sent an email to the entire police department, praising their work and announcing his departure, according to a copy of the message obtained by The Sun News.
“The City intends to pursue a new direction, so I will respect that decision and step aside,” Gall wrote. “I leave with a great sense of pride in this family, a family that has become an important part of my life for 37 years.”