Fighting crime doesn’t pay, now police are “woefully” short on officers

Horry County police take a suspect into custody in Surfside Beach.
Horry County police take a suspect into custody in Surfside Beach. jblackmon@thesunnews.com

The Horry County Police Department is extremely understaffed, says Chief Joseph Hill, who is also juggling another declining vacancy rate because of low-paying wages.

“Folks are leaving because they are getting higher pay elsewhere,” Hill said Tuesday. “I just lost a guy to a construction job, he’s going to hang drywall, making more money than he can protecting the citizens of Horry County.”

The vacancy rate is now 21 officers. When fully staffed, Horry County has 264 sworn positions.

If Horry County were following the national average, the department would have about 355 sworn positions, Hill said.

“We’re woefully understaffed,” Hill said. “It is what it is, so now what are we going to do about it?” Instead of hiring rookies, Hill said there is a concerted effort to hire trained and experienced officers.

Hill initially said that Myrtle Beach police has a staff of 300, but Warren Gall, the city’s police chief, said their sworn personnel is just over 200.

Councilman Bill Howard agreed with Hill that high turnover rates needs to be tackled.

“If we could get them from other counties and other cities, and they came in already trained, it would save us a bundle of money,” Howard said.

Neither Hill nor council members who heard Hill’s report during the Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday suggested how officers could be paid more, or additional officers hired.

However, the council voted last week to keep a 1.5 percent hospitality tax in place after RIDE I roads were paid off in 2019, and several councilmen suggested that money could be used in the future for the police department.

Hill said a key issue is the need to keep officers who have been here for three to five years by making sure they are not being paid the same as newly hired officers who make about $36,000.

While hiring is a priority for the agency right now, Hill said he doesn’t want officers who are just coming for the pay.

“I’m not looking for applications, I’m looking for commitment,” Hill said. “I will not lower the standards just to fill a seat.”

Asked if county residents should be concerned about their safety because of the lack of officers on the street, Hill said they are still fighting crime and making arrests daily.

“They work with less, but they can’t keep working with less, it’s wearing them out,” Hill said. “They just want to know people are paying attention, and help is on the way. We’ll get through this.”

The 2018 fiscal year that begins in July allows for 12 more officers to be hired. Using that money instead to bump up the salaries of current officers won’t work, because it’s a one-time, short-term fix, Hill said.

Salaries need to continue to be adjusted yearly as they are under the new merit system pay, but Hill reiterated that the salaries of officers who have been on the job about five years also need readjusting.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson