Emails between members of Myrtle Beach City Council show that a string of shootings in April left them worrying about how the spate of violence would affect the reputation of the area — and elections in the fall.
The shootings reverberated through Myrtle Beach as officials grapple with how best to police the downtown area. A series of public discussions have culminated in an enhanced policing plan, restrictions on mo-ped and golf cart rentals and another ordinance under review that could bar shops in one area from selling obscene items or weapons.
The city also ushered in changes in law enforcement when former Police Chief Warren Gall stepped down from his position on May 25 after 20 years. He will collect roughly $96,000 in salary and benefits as well as a $2,800 holiday bonus check in the next six months, during which he may serve as a consultant, according to documents.
He said in a letter to officers that the city “intends to pursue a new direction.”
But in messages among themselves, some city officials expressed concern that policing had been lax leading up to the shootings and wrote that stakeholders around the city had contacted them to say so. The Sun News reviewed the emails Wednesday after a Freedom of Information request.
“We as a city including many years of passive enforcement has created these problems that continued to be ignored spring after spring,” Councilman Mike Lowder wrote in a April 28 email to other city council members.
Lowder said in a city council meeting before that date that he disagreed with Gall’s policing strategy. He could not be reached for follow up questions on his cellphone on Wednesday.
Councilman Randal Wallace wrote in a April 27 message that people who frequented Ocean Boulevard were flummoxed by the lack of police presence downtown, and that some had told him they weren’t seeing officers for long periods of time while fights broke out on the street.
“[Police officers] need to be visible, visible, visible,” Councilman Randal Wallace wrote in the email to City Manager John Pedersen, city council, then-chief Gall and his eventual successor, Amy Prock. “I am hearing this over and over again and these folks are actually calling me not because they are mad like some others on the boulevard but because they are concerned about the situation and out of fear I may end up in trouble in the fall over it.”
Wallace faces an election for his seat in November, along with Lowder, Mayor John Rhodes and Councilman Wayne Gray.
His message also showed the hard political reality of some moves, like the proposed reduction of Ocean Boulevard to three lanes downtown. Downtown shop owners have long opposed the move, which was one of the first ideas publicly presented by Pedersen after the shootings.
“This will never be forgiven and you will have enemies on that boulevard forever,” Wallace wrote. “Not me, I will make my case and move on. … But it will create a lasting bitterness to rival the motorcycles.”
In 2008, Myrtle Beach instituted a mandatory helmet law for motorcycle riders that was overturned by the S.C. Supreme Court in 2010. However, visitors for large rallies like Bike Week in May will still opt to go to areas outside the city, like Socastee or Murrells Inlet.
Wallace told The Sun News on Wednesday he was frustrated that the first proposal brought forward was the traffic change, and not a stronger policing effort. He said it likely damaged the city’s relationship with business owners in the Oceanfront Merchants Association, though a safe Memorial Day weekend may have lessened the impact.
“I wouldn’t say they trust us that much at the moment, but I do think it’s better than it was when I wrote that email,” Wallace said.
Lowder also disagreed with the altered traffic plan for Myrtle Beach’s thoroughfare closest to the shore.
“Changing lanes on the boulevard will not change the disrespectful behavior of thug and gang activities. Which doesn’t take place in vehicles,” he wrote.
The idea failed in a May 2 meeting when city council directed Pedersen to keep the traffic pattern the same.