August 15, 2014

Are Myrtle Beach-area police prepared for riots? Real key is avoiding such disasters with mutual respect, leaders say

With the nation watching riots and protests in the wake of a shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., it is unclear how Myrtle Beach area police would respond in a similar situation.

With the nation watching riots and protests in the wake of a shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., it is unclear how Myrtle Beach area police would respond in a similar situation.

But the policy that would dictate the response of local police isn’t as important as how they are trained and the respect they would show residents if comparable circumstances happened along the Grand Strand, said Mickey James, Myrtle Beach’s NAACP president.

“It’s a tragedy in this day and time that we have this type of stuff going on throughout the nation. It has caused a lot of emotions,” James said Friday. “Justice needs to be done to carry out the wrong that’s been done to this young man and his family. Anytime you get emotions running high like that and people get upset you have to be very careful and respect people’s civil rights. It could happen anywhere. It shouldn’t happen, but it happens.”

James also worries about something happening in Myrtle Beach during Memorial Day weekend when thousands of people come to town for the annual Atlantic Beach Bikefest celebrations.

“We need to make sure these police officers are trained as far as respect,” James said. “That could happen during Memorial weekend because you have so many people coming in. it’s easy to lose respect.”

To address those concerns, James said NAACP members will hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Thursday at Myrtle Beach City Hall.

Gov. Nikki Haley has called for an end to Bikefest after festivities turned violent in Myrtle Beach during the weekend. But Atlantic Beach officials said they have no plans to end Bikefest.

Thousands of people stopped traffic on Ocean Boulevard during the Memorial Day weekend and clogged area streets after three people were killed and one person was injured in a May 24 shooting at Bermuda Sands Resort. There have been no arrests in connection with the killings. There were seven other confirmed shootings along Ocean Boulevard that injured six people that weekend.

It’s unclear how police officers in Myrtle Beach and Horry County would respond if a riotous situation occurred along the Grand Strand. Myrtle Beach police officials were not immediately available to comment Friday about their policies and procedures for handling such incidents.

In an interview with The Sun News in June, Myrtle Beach police Chief Warren Gall said extra police officers will be brought in during Bikefest to help with crowds and he hopes to make sure the officers are respectful.

“Despite the treatment we get from people we still have to treat everyone right and we still have to be fair. We can’t chuck all that out the window and say we can abuse people, we can beat people that's not us and if we lower us to that level were no better than the criminals out there,” Gall said in the June 5 interview. “We have to make sure that all of these officers, and I’m not saying they would come in here with that mentality, but we have to make sure all of the officers understand what kind of scrutiny they will be under and what kind of microscope they’ll be under and ask if they’ll be able to handle that situation.”

Horry County police Lt. Robert Kegler said he could not go into specifics about the department’s policies. Horry County police Chief Saundra Rhodes declined to comment.

“The situation in Ferguson, Mo. is an ongoing situation and not related with the Horry County Police Department,” Kegler said. “I am not prepared to comment on it or speak about our specific tactics if the situation was to happen here.”

Police have said 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot after an officer encountered him and another man, Dorian Johnson, on the street during a routine patrol. They say one of the men pushed the officer into his squad car, then physically assaulted him in the vehicle and struggled with the officer over the officer's weapon. At least one shot was fired inside the car before the struggle spilled onto the street, where Brown was shot multiple times, according to police.

Johnson has told media a different story. He said he and Brown were walking in the street when an officer ordered them onto the sidewalk, then grabbed his friend's neck and tried to pull him into the car before brandishing his weapon and firing. He said Brown started to run and the officer pursued him, firing multiple times.

Police wearing riot gear used tear gas and smoke bombs to repel crowds who threw Molotov cocktails during protests Sunday on the streets of the St. Louis suburb of about 21,000 residents. Since then, police have been criticized for arresting, and then releasing, two journalists covering the community’s response to the shooting, and for what has been described as a militarized response to the protests held throughout the week.

On Friday, Ferguson police said Officer Darren Wilson, a six-year veteran, shot Brown, according to reports in The St. Louis Post Dispatch. They also released information that Brown had been a suspect in a strong armed robbery earlier at a convenience store, although the Ferguson police chief later said the officer didn’t know that at the time of his fatal encounter with Brown.

No matter the training local police receive to handle riots or protests, James said the Ferguson situation has shown how respect is needed by both police and protesters.

“I don’t agree with the looting and destruction of property,” James said. “This is a tragedy. Something needs to be done about it.”

Amanda Kelley and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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