Crime

Sheriff: Merging police agencies gives voters accountability

Horry County Sheriff Phillip E. Thompson.
Horry County Sheriff Phillip E. Thompson. jlee@thesunnews.com

Sheriff Phillip Thompson says his phone is ringing off the hook with constituents urging him to renew an effort to consolidate his office with the Horry County Police Department.

Thompson admits that many of those callers were concerned about the recent controversy that has embroiled the county police agency — an investigation by state law enforcement, lawsuits alleging police misconduct and the sudden retirement of its chief and deputy chief.

“It certainly creates a cloud of uncertainty and doubt, and that’s sad, because there are a lot of good men and women in that organization that I know personally and care about very much,” Thompson told The Sun News during an interview Monday.

“But anytime we have something of that nature, not only does it create doubt about one department, it does about all law enforcement,” Thompson said. “Where our society is today, law enforcement has been taking a beating. People tell me they think it’s time to come together for the betterment of law enforcement in this county, that’s the calls I’m getting.”

The question of whether the sheriff’s department should merge with the county police department surfaced last week during an Horry County Council committee hearing on public safety. Councilman Paul Prince asked that the issue be considered by the full council, and the consolidation question placed on the ballot for voters to decide. Horry County is the only county in South Carolina that has separate police and sheriff’s departments.

Horry County voters rejected the idea of merging the two departments during a 1998 vote by a significant margin of 64 percent against and 36 percent for the merger.

Ironically, Thompson was on the other side of that campaign as an officer for the Horry County Police Department, and opposed consolidation.

It certainly creates a cloud of uncertainty and doubt, and that’s sad, because there are a lot of good men and women in that organization that I know personally and care about very much.

Phillip Thompson, sheriff, Horry County

Thompson says he and other officers were worried then that their jobs would be eliminated if merged with the sheriff’s department.

“It wasn’t a pleasant experience during that referendum. There were families on both sides (of the issue). I’m not asking for that, we don’t need that,” Thompson said.

The Horry County Police Department already has a shortage of law enforcement officers, they need more, not less, Thompson said.

Asked what has changed since voters rejected a merger, Thompson said the county police department had a strong chief during the last election.

“We don’t have a police chief at this particular point,” Thompson said.

Saundra Rhodes’ last day as police chief was May 6, and Deputy Chief Scott Rutherford announced his retirement last week.

The officers and county officials have declined to discuss the internal situation at the police department, the investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or two ongoing lawsuits. One of the lawsuits accuses a police detective of sexually assaulting a rape victim. SLED is investigating individuals in the police department, but officials haven’t given details about those inquiries.

Several county councilmen have expressed reservations about merging the sheriff’s department with the police department, and say that the county police chief is held to a higher level of accountability because the chief can be hired and fired at will by the county administrator, while the sheriff is an elected position for four years.

Thompson believes the opposite, and says that the voters who elect both the council and the sheriff should be trusted to decide who is in charge of law enforcement.

During the same 15-year period Thompson has held the office of sheriff, he says that county voters have elected one coroner and one auditor, plus two treasures and two auditors — the later two filled the position of retiring officials.

“There hasn’t been any issue with the people that the citizens have elected,” Thompson said.

This is not an argument, I don’t have any ill feelings or problems with anyone on the council, and I don’t even know if it would pass this time. But it’s become an issue and my constituents are calling me.

Phillip Thompson, sheriff, Horry County

“But we’ve had four police chiefs since I’ve been sheriff, we’ve had three county administrators since I’ve been sheriff, and had five fire chiefs since I’ve been sheriff,” Thompson said.

“Which system to you think works better? Appointed or elected?”

The county council first has to approve a ballot measure before it can be put to the voters in an election, and the deadline for getting the question approved for the November general election is August.

Thompson says he is confident the council will give the issue serious consideration and is not planning to actively campaign for the question to be put on the ballot.

“This is not an argument, I don’t have any ill feelings or problems with anyone on the council, and I don’t even know if it would pass this time. But it’s become an issue and my constituents are calling me. I think they’re right, I think we’ve come to that point where we need to do what the other 45 counties in this state does,” Thompson said.

Audrey Hudson: 843-444-1765, @AudreyHudson

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