Police chief: Grand Strand is 'great customer base' for gang recruitment

Horry County's top police officer called the area "a great customer base" for national gang recruiting efforts, though many local groups still consist of homegrown members.

"We have intel that there have been some national recruiting work in Horry County," Horry County Police Chief Joseph Hill said. "I mean let's face it, this is a great customer base for those folks. We have millions of people visiting Horry County, a lot of them come here, and they bring their problems with them. So their customer base is fluctuating every week as the new folks come down here to vacation. So this is a prime spot for illegal activity of the sort of drugs and human trafficking."

Many local gangs still consist homegrown members. Often members come from poverty and turn to criminal activity without a successful path in life.

But, Hill stressed his department has identified gangs and they remain concentrated to certain areas. Police also work quickly to arrest participants.

"We have a containment on the gangs. We have good intel. We are building better intel on who these folks are and we shut them down as quick as possible," he said. Later Hill added, "Whether we have one or 100, gangs is a problem."

Those arrests might not occur as quick as people desire, Hill admitted, as it can take months or years to build a case against a crew.

Hill spoke about gang-related issues during the South Carolina Gang Conference on Monday in Myrtle Beach. The gathering allows local, state and federal law enforcement officials to train and network as they attempt to stop gang activity.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said gang-related offenses in South Carolina held steady during the previous three years at about 800 cases annually. Gang activity is roughly four times more likely to use a gun and two-and-a-half times more likely to have an underage perpetrator than other types of crime.

Keel said there are 732 validated gangs in South Carolina.

Local gangs are not typically the well-known groups, such as the Bloods and Crips, Hill said. They are often smaller organizations and commit various crimes. In fact, Hill estimated a majority of the county's 2017 murder cases stem from gang activity.

"A lot of gang activity is associated with the violence we have in Horry County, whether its assaults, robberies, home invasions and, of course, murders," Hill said. "We had 23 murders last year and … I would say that 70 percent [were] associated with gang violence of some type."

He called the fact "scary" but noted the gangs are concentrated to pockets of the county, which allows police to pool their resources to those areas. Much of the gang activity is centered in western Horry County, such as parts of Conway and Loris, Hill said.

The Horry County Police Department is part of an area-wide task force with local and federal agencies that work to slow gang activity, Hill said. That partnership strengthens law enforcement resources.

"We target their money. We target their drug chain. We target their activity and we go after them hard," Hill said.

A constant challenge for police is to remain up-to-date with new technology used by gangs as they have turned to cyber currency and encrypted phones, Hill said.

It also causes frustration to know that if there is a bust, another group often fills the criminal void left behind, Hill said. He recalled a drug raid early in his tenure and in the immediate aftermath residents returned to life without fear of drug-associated problems. A month later, the area was again under the drug thumb.

"My frustration is for their well-being, their safety," he said. "They're invested in their homes, some of them can't afford to move … and so I care about them. I want to make sure they have a safe place to raise their family and to retire and grow old. [They're] not worrying about being shot in the middle of the night."