Calling 911 from a doughnut hole? Myrtle Beach and county police navigate confusion

Reports of shots fired were called in 5 hours before police found body.

Here's the 911 call a woman made after hearing shots near an apartment complex.
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Here's the 911 call a woman made after hearing shots near an apartment complex.

Every time Teresa Lisbon calls the Myrtle Beach Police Department, she quickly gets transferred to Horry County police.

Though her mailing address says Myrtle Beach, she lives in unincorporated county territory along Racepath Street. The county road in the center of Myrtle Beach is currently lined with garbage after the nearby dumpster was recently removed, Lisbon said.

Lisbon’s street is in one of several “doughnut holes” in the Myrtle Beach area, meaning she could walk from her house in any direction and quickly find herself within the city’s jurisdiction.

Doughnut holes and questions over jurisdictional lines can sometimes create issues for public safety personnel and the residents and vacationers confused about which departments to call.

July 10 homicide

Recently, a homicide victim sat in a Myrtle Beach-area parking lot for more than five hours after MBPD responded to the area after midnight July 10 when they received two separate shots fired calls.

The city police investigated and didn’t find anything along Wild Iris Drive, which is right along the line between Horry County and Myrtle Beach. County police were dispatched about 6 a.m. when a 911 caller reported the dead body in the parking lot at Magnolia North condos.

Neither of the original callers called 911, where all calls will go through the county dispatch center, but they’ll still use this unfortunate instance to add to their training, according to 911 director Renee Hardwick.

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One woman first called the county non-emergency line, and she was advised the address she was describing was in the city’s jurisdiction, so she later called the city police non-emergency line, which a man also called about the same time.

Hardwick advises residents to dial 911 if they hear shots fired and feel in imminent danger or the center’s non-emergency line at 843-915-5100 if they hear the shots at a distance.

The 911 center has a computer-aided design (CAD) system that allows its telecommunicators to determine the jurisdiction of each caller, she said, and employees will be trained to pay more attention to the system in areas where the lines aren’t as clear.

“We need to learn from anything that happens,” Hardwick said.

The video was captured by a Myrtle Beach resident on Friday, Oct. 13 in the area of 3rd Ave. S. and Broadway St.

Emergency responder coordination

For police, dealing with jurisdictional disputes mostly boils down to good communication between patrol officers, according to HCPD Capt. John Harrelson.

Doughnut holes and unincorporated properties exist around the county, not just in Myrtle Beach, but Harrelson said county police are protected when they respond anywhere in the county because it’s all within their jurisdiction.

The call for service always comes first, Harrelson said, and police will work out any jurisdictional issues later as needed. The county has agreements with the municipal police agencies, allowing the departments to share information and help respond to cases dealing with immediate life-safety issues.

For example, if a county officer needs backup and a city officer is closer, the city officer will respond, he said.

When police do respond and investigate in an area near a jurisdictional border, protocol is to share info with the other department if there is a belief that the investigation needs to cross those lines, Harrelson added.

Lt. Cathie Rhodes, part of the communications team at the Myrtle Beach Police Department, said officials also use the CAD system when receiving calls for service.

“If a caller is in a Horry County response area within the City of Myrtle Beach, we would explain to them that they are not within our jurisdiction,” Rhodes said in an email. “At that time they will be transferred to Horry County Dispatch and/or given the phone number.”

If a city officer responds to an area that is a doughnut hole, they will work with county police to send an officer while still responding to the incident, Rhodes said.

Carol Coleman, director of the Myrtle Beach Planning Department, said she often hears complaints about response times from residents in Plantation Point and in Myrtle Beach’s Racepath community.

For fire officials, an agreement between city and county fire departments says that Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue can respond to calls for service in doughnut holes.

“If it’s in the city we go, if we get a call we go, it’s just how it is,” said Lt. Jon Evans, spokesperson for Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue. “I’m not gonna say ‘oh, it’s the county, they should really go.’”

Other issues

Confusion among emergency responders isn’t the only issue that doughnut holes create.

City and county officials have long sought ways to address the local homeless population, which often set up camp in these unincorporated areas to avoid city police.

Lisbon and neighbor Ernest Cooper both point down the road into a wooded area, where they say a large group of young homeless people sleep every night.

Coleman said city officials often have to call the county to clean out homeless camps in doughnut holes that are filled with trees.

Lisbon, 59, and Cooper, 67, have both lived on Racepath Street their entire lives and have repeatedly turned down city officials’ attempts to annex their properties into city limits.

“I don’t want to pay those city taxes,” Cooper said, though he admits not receiving city services is a detriment.

Lisbon points to an unfinished park behind her house that has begun accumulating trash since the dumpster was removed. Instead of the park becoming a place for kids to go to stay out of trouble, she said it’s become a popular meeting spot for drug deals.

“Racepath is still in the county,” Coleman said. “They didn’t want to come into the city. I think there’s some people out there that would, just to get better police presence and everything else, but we have to want them to come in.”

History and future of doughnut holes

The doughnut holes have been created as Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Conway have expanded by annexing large swaths of previously unincorporated land during the past half century or so, according to David Schwerd, the county’s interim planning director.

State law prevents cities from annexing properties without property owners’ permission, so many unincorporated areas have remained, despite the city expanding all around their land, he said.

Schwerd said there are three ways a city can annex a property, which must be contiguous to currently established city lines: a property owner asks for the annexation, a larger area of property owners petition city council to hold a special election for annexation, or cities can require annexation if a property owner requests new or increased city services, often utility or water services.

A designated area can be annexed if 25 percent of registered voters in the area sign a petition requesting the election, and then more than 50 percent of voters in that election approve the annexation, according to state law.

Schwerd said properties are most commonly annexed via the third method, as property values continue to increase and developers buy up unincorporated land and need increased city services.

Coleman said people who develop properties within doughnut holes typically choose to annex into city limits for easier access to services such as sewer and water.

Casey Fields, municipal advocacy manager at the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said the group is working to move a bill forward that will make it easier to annex land into the cities across the state.

On Sept. 6, officials from the municipal association will meet with local mayors and council members in Conway to discuss any concerns created by doughnut holes.

“It’s just inefficient,” Fields said. “Garbage pick up, police protection, fire protection, those kinds of things.”

Property owners complain that drugs, prostitution, and vagrancy are a constant issues on Third Avenue South, one of Myrtle Beach's main corridors.

David Weissman: @WeissmanMBO, 843-626-0305; Megan Tomasic: @MeganTomasic, 843-626-0343