Horry County council members are examining the pros and cons of merging the county police department with the sheriff’s office.
Deputy County Attorney Wes Covington was instructed during the council’s Public Safety Committee meeting on Wednesday to study the issue and present his findings to the panel at its meeting next month.
Covington told the council that a merger ballot question would have to be approved by the council, and then put to Horry County residents for a vote during an election.
Councilman Paul Prince raised the issue and said his support for the idea was not based on recent upheavals within the Horry County Police Department, which includes pending lawsuits and the recent retirement of both the chief and a deputy chief.
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Prince said he is hearing strong support for the merger from his constituents.
“I think now is the time for us to put it together, bring it before the people if that’s what it takes, and make it one united police department,” Prince said.
If the law enforcement agencies were combined, “we might not go through some of the things we’ve gone through in the past few years,” he said.
Covington said the merger was voted on previously in a 1998 election and that voters rejected the idea.
Horry County is the only county in the state that has not combined the county law enforcement agency with the sheriff’s department.
Sheriff Phillip Thompson said the Horry County Police Department was created more than five decades ago as a result of a dispute among elected officials. He endorses the unification of both departments.
“The consolidation of these departments is timely. To remain two separate departments is not in the best interest of the citizens of Horry County and is not justifiable, either from a performance or financial standpoint,” Thompson said.
“The citizens are deserving of a law enforcement agency that is accountable to them through one elected official who serves at their pleasure,” he said.
Other council members at the meeting, including Johnny Vaught, Al Allen and Bill Howard, said they weren’t ready to state their position on a merger until after the deputy county attorney presents his report.
“At this point and time, I’ve really not drawn a conclusion on that because I think it’s a very serious issue and I don’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction, such as what many politicians do. So, it needs a little further study,” Allen said.
“We’ve got a wonderful sheriff who does a wonderful job, but I think it’s an advantage to have the county police under the county council because we can hire and fire the police chief,” Allen said.
A county police department also allows council members to advocate for their constituents to ensure public safety services are adequately delivered, Allen said.
Vaught said that the sheriff is an elected official, which carries the risk of electing someone who might turn out to be unfit for the position.
“If a sheriff who was (in charge) of all the police force misbehaved in his first year, he’s got four more years before the people can un-elect him,” Vaught said. “If we had a police chief that was not behaving, then we can immediately deal with it — that’s the difference.”
In South Carolina, the only official with authority and arrest power of a sheriff is the county coroner, the councilmen said.