Anger was thick in Myrtle Beach’s Ted C. Collins Law Enforcement Center on Tuesday afternoon, as 18 members of the public spoke to city council about public safety after one of the highest profile crimes in years rocked the city’s tourism district around Ocean Boulevard.
The meeting was attended by local officials like Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus and State Rep. Russel Fry, but mainly, it was filled with people concerned for their safety and for the city’s tourism industry. Speaker after speaker called for more police, and quickly — with some at the special city council meeting openly floating this November’s municipal elections as they urged an immediate response after five shootings in three days.
“Y’all have let this town get out of control! You need to take this city back or get out, all of you!” Myrtle Beach resident Joe McVay told the council.
The recent shootings have rocked the beach community that brands itself as a kid friendly getaway for working-class families. Millions have now viewed a Facebook live video of an Ocean Boulevard shooting, which sent six people to the hospital in the early hours of Sunday morning. Another shooting took place in the parking lot of Coastal Grand Mall, police have said.
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With an estimated 18 million visitors coming to the area in 2016, Myrtle Beach also is a cash cow for the state in generating tax money through hospitality fees, accommodations taxes and sales taxes, and the violence has grabbed the attention of state officials. Gov. Henry McMaster announced he would hold a meeting with local law enforcement on Thursday after the fifth shooting on Monday night.
“It’s an embarrassment the governor’s coming down here to tell y’all how to run the city,” former Mayor Mark McBride said. McBride has been a political opponent to some on council in multiple elections since he lost a bid for his third mayoral term to John Rhodes in 2006.
But city officials said they were glad to have the governor come and have the state offer its resources.
Public discussion Tuesday was frequently angry, with members of the crowd cheering at times and shouting at others. Three times Rhodes was overruled as he attempted to take the panel into a closed session — the first two times by speakers who insisted on talking and then by another council member. The body instead heard a public presentation on crime by Interim Chief Amy Prock.
Anthony Caldarulo, the owner of Caldas Coal Fire Pizza & Sports Bar at 1311 N. Kings Hwy, was the first person to interrupt Rhodes, telling city council that his business this year is down 52 percent.
He tried to tell customers in his shop this weekend not to worry about the violence, he told The Sun News, but many said they wouldn’t be coming back. City council, he said, “need[s] to stop all this nonsense.”
At roughly an hour and a half into the meeting, the city had exhausted its list of public speakers that had signed. Rhodes called for a motion to go into executive session — a closed meeting that is allowed so officials can receive legally privileged information.
But Councilman Wayne Gray objected to taking the matter behind closed doors, and Councilman Randal Wallace quickly agreed. In the presentation that followed by Prock, the public heard details of the weekend shooting that had not been previously released.
“I just felt like we could have that conversation publicly,” Gray later said. “Might as well have it public, we’re going to have to disclose what some of the issues are anyway.”
Rhodes agreed the outcome of that decision was positive.
“I think it turned out well,” he said after. “Our citizens were able to become a little more informed.”
Police come into the spotlight
Prock, who assumed her role May 25 after former Chief Warren Gall stepped down, gave city council a minute-by-minute account of the Ocean Boulevard shooting on Sunday morning. She said that 46 officers, including those from outside agencies, were in the boulevard area from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Sunday, and that the suspected shooter was apprehended six minutes after the shots were fired.
Police have yet to release his name, but said the still-hospitalized suspect is a 17-year-old from North Carolina. Prock said Tuesday they believe the shooting to be gang-related.
Several speakers voiced concern that Myrtle Beach police were somehow hindered from aggressive enforcement — whether by commanding officers or by fear of a lawsuit from a civil rights group like the NAACP.
But Prock denied both suggestions.
“I heard our community loud and clear,” she said. “We will do what we need to do to get the job done.”
Prock took control of the department immediately before Memorial Day weekend, a holiday that kicks off some of the busiest weeks of the summer season, rarely giving officers a rest until late June. She said officers have been working without days off, some of them for 26 days at a time.
“My officers have been working for the last six weekends with not a lot of sleep,” Prock said, at times directly addressing the audience. “They’re busting their tail and they’re going to continue to do it, because they care about you, each and every one of them. They care.”
City Manager John Pedersen said Prock has not been named the permanent chief. But, he said, “I do not expect to have a search” for a new chief.
Councilman Mike Lowder, a former Myrtle Beach Police officer who said he has advocated stronger enforcement for the past eight years, said he thinks the city will continue to make strides in policing.
“I’m confident going forward, until I see different,” he said.
A plan to move forward
By the end of the meeting Tuesday, over three hours from its start, several members of the standing-room-only audience in the 250-seat room had filtered out.
But after public comment and Prock’s presentation, Pedersen gave three immediate proposals: better lighting of some areas downtown, a potentially earlier juvenile curfew and barricades along certain sections of Ocean Boulevard.
The barricades, which are used more extensively during big-traffic events like Memorial Day weekend’s bike rallies, would not block off intersections or crosswalks. They would stretch along the boulevard from 16th to 12th avenues North, from 9th to 8th avenues North, and from 7th Avenue North to 17th Avenue South.
“The barricades are clearly something that have worked in the past,” Councilman Randal Wallace said later.
Pedersen said that the city also needed to work on projecting the image of a fun town — but one that would not tolerate crime.
“I think we need to work on the messaging, and while we’re putting the message out there that we want people to come here, I think we’re all in agreement that we want people to come here to obey the law,” Pedersen said.
“We’re going to have to do a big job of making sure people understand the consequences of coming to Myrtle Beach and acting the way that folks acted last weekend.”
Audrey Hudson contributed to this report.