Horry County's children deserve better from police, county government

Lamenting the failure of the Horry County Police Department to investigate sex crimes against children, Sue Berkowitz of the S.C. Legal Justice Center asked: If we aren’t going to protect children, who are we going to protect?

It’s a fair and good question, and one which Horry County public officials should be asking themselves — and then providing answers for the public instead of stonewalling and misusing the Freedom of Information Act. On March 25, The Sun News published a report (“FORGOTTEN VICTIMS”) detailing prematurely dropped cases of sex crimes on children. An important element of the reportorial investigation illustrated an unacceptable lack of transparency and clarity.

“Requests … for basic information, such as how many cases the department handled, have been met by an onslaught of obstacles, including widely conflicting answers, refusals to comment and a Freedom of Information Act response in which [the HCPD] claimed it would take five months and more than $23,000 of work — which it would charge the newspaper — to fulfill.”

Police Chief Joe Hill punted all questions on the investigation to county attorney ArrigoCarotti; Horry County Council chairman Mark Lazarus said county administrator Chris Eldridge is responsible for day-to-day oversight of departments. Neither of the well-paid appointed officials responded to requests. It’s hardly the first time Eldridge or Carotti have stonewalled news reporters.

Down the chain of command, county spokeswoman Kelly Moore did not address questions about the cases. The HCPD public information officer, Krystal Dotson, provided the outrageous $23,000 cost estimate — “930 (hours) x $25 per hour = $23,250 which does not include the $.50 cost per page.” Moreover, when Dotson was questioned about the process of fulfilling the FOIA request, she wondered: “What benefit does the public have in knowing?”

That’s not a proper question for a PIO, or any elected or appointed official. The benefit to the public includes having information, through news media reporting, that helps citizens determine if justice is being served, if children are properly protected, if county law enforcement officers are doing their jobs. From Eldridge on down the Horry County bureaucracy, citizens and taxpayers deserve better understanding that public information belongs to the public, not Horry County government nor any entity thereof including the HCPD.

Journalists, including here at the grassroots of the republic as much as the Washington press corps, understand that we are not necessarily popular with presidents, legislators, governors, county and municipal officials, etc. Often, doing our jobs begs questions about whether public officials are doing their jobs. That’s the way it is — and does not make the news media the enemy of the people.

A lack of accountability is one of the most troubling aspects of the investigation. The numbers provided by the HCPD range from 3,100 (in December 2017) over the past five years to 497 (in February), then 1,168. Unlike other kinds of crime, sex crimes against children are not tracked. They should be uniformly tracked, and the S.C. General Assembly should make that happen. Horry and Georgetown legislators should help advance a change in state law.

Sex crimes on children often are particularly difficult to investigate and to prosecute. Tracking these crimes differs widely in South Carolina. For example, the Myrtle Beach Police Department reported 209 cases over five years, and provided a list of cases, and the status (closed, unfounded, active). The newspaper’s investigation focused on the HCPD, which covers unincorporated areas of the county, such as Carolina Forest and Little River. Horry is the only S.C. county in which the police department is not part of the elected sheriff’s responsibility.

The HCPD has made some improvement in correcting problems, according to outside professionals such as Dr. Carol Rahter, founder of the Children’s Recovery Center, and attorney Amy Lawrence. Dr. Rahter, who examines abused children, cites a better relationship with the HCPD which she said is more responsive than in the past. Lawrence said, “I see them making small steps … at the rate they’re going it’s going to take decades … I don’t think the community has decades to wait.”

Lawrence also spoke to the dropped cases. “This is an awful thing that has happened. But if we don’t acknowledge it, if the police department doesn’t acknowledge that it was bad and change, become better because of it, then it will just continue on. It won’t ever end.”