Can Myrtle Beach police keep up with tourism? How their 7-year plan is working

Grand Strand Crime

The Myrtle Beach Police Department’s real time crime lab is pictured on Nov. 24, 2020. (Source: Braley Dodson, WBTW)

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — School Resource Officer Chris Holmes found the Myrtle Beach Police Department in the same way most new officers have — through the internet.

But Holmes wasn’t looking for a job. He was looking for a grill.

In Jacksonville, Florida. 

He saw a post on Craigslist about job openings, applied without even telling his wife, did the agility test and has now been with the department for four years.

“At the time, it just happened so quick, but I thank God that I ended up here,” Holmes said.

Holmes isn’t the department’s only new addition. Since the implementation of a seven-year plan, the police department has upped recruiting efforts, made steps to retain existing officers and created a new initiative to curb crime.

The plan, passed by the Myrtle Beach City Council in Oct. 2017, states that an increase in tourists has outpaced the growth of police resources available.

The plan includes efforts such as reducing crime through environmental design, addressing the root causes of criminal behavior and increasing community outreach efforts, police presence on the street and the use of crime data.

In 2009, Myrtle Beach had a population of 31,465 permanent residents and a total of 272 law enforcement employees, according to data from the FBI. Of those, 202 were officers, bringing the city’s ratio to one full-time law enforcement employee for every 115 residents.

Ten years later, the city had grown to 34,860 permanent residents, and the Myrtle Beach Department had 308 law enforcement employees. Of those, 229 were officers, creating a ratio of one full-time law enforcement employee for every 113 people.

Dismantling the source

Launched in April, the Myrtle Beach Police Department’s new crime intelligence unit is already breaking up crime rings, according to Bryan Stillwell, a detective in the unit.

“If we can get to the top of the food chain, so to speak, and we can dismantle the organization, then we can reduce the amount of crime, because a lot of people who are doing this in an organized fashion, they are actually responsible for a big part of the crimes that go on,” he said. 

Stillwell and his partner focus on crime rings and the pattern of illegal activities. They conduct interviews, gather intelligence and perform field work, which is then passed along to Kyleen Crane, a crime analyst. 

Crane focuses on identifying criminals. She also serves as a liaison between the police department and other agencies.

Since the unit formed, Crane said the department has already seen the amount of property crimes within the city significantly decrease.

“I really enjoy it, and if it helps people on the road, or helps an investigation close faster, that’s great,” she said. 

Stillwell said that work has already led to the takedown of a large organization that was the root of a stream of larcenies and burglaries. Police were also able to recover stolen goods while executing a search warrant. 

By decreasing the overall number of crimes, the team hopes to shrink officers’ workloads.

“I would say that is our ultimate goal, is to make the job a little bit easier for them so they are not overworked, overwhelmed with the number of crimes, and hopefully by going after the top of the organization, we can reduce that,” Stillwell said. 

The unit also serves another role as a potential recruitment and retention tool by giving officers something to strive for.

“I think that is a selling point for coming to the Myrtle Beach Police Department,” Stillwell said. 

Dedication to the plan

The 2017 plan was passed to assure the police department was stable and could recruit the best talent while still growing, according to Mark Kruea, the public information director for the City of Myrtle Beach. 

Since then, the city has added 40 new police positions, the majority of those law enforcement officers. The growth initiative has cost the city an extra $800,000 to $1 million a year, which the city has used federal grants to help pay for.

The city has also increased starting salaries to $40,000 a year for uncertified officers and $44,000 for certified officers. There is also a step plan in place for salary increases if officers continue to get good annual reviews. 

“We want to keep the law enforcement officers here,” Kruea said. “We think we offer a dynamic public service experience for them.”

Kruea said the city is trying to fight the “bigger badge syndrome,” where officers will leave for a state agency. 

With a population that swells to an average of 225,000 people a day, Kruea said Myrtle Beach provides more activity per police than anywhere else in the state.

“We are a small town that, for half of the year, looks and functions like a big town,” he said. 

That tourist swell, he said, means that the city has to have a police force for a population far beyond its size. 

Kruea said the city council hasn’t been shy about its commitment to supporting the force. 

“The overall concept of having a safe community is its number one priority, and we have been able to put the necessary resources toward that goal,” he said. 

Under the plan, the city has dedicated funds toward growing technological resources and now has a camera system with more than 1,000 units. 

The city is pleased with the plan’s results.

“I think it has gone very well,” Kruea said. “We may have all been a little surprised we have been able to add 10 police officers every year, too.”

Growing interest

A few years ago, the Myrtle Beach Police Department was receiving 40 to 50 applicants for every 10 open positions. Now, it’s seeing 200 to 300 applicants for every 15 positions, according to Master Cpl. Tom Vest. 

“What we are seeing are a lot more people applying, a lot better candidates are applying and, again, it is because we have such a good presence out there, and the people who work here love their jobs, and that transitions very nicely into other people wanting to come onboard,” Vest said. 

While the department used to rely heavily on recruiting events and print media ads to attract employees, it now mainly uses social media and the internet.

“The internet has been the place to get it,” Vest said. “We are our best ambassadors.”

He said most officers joined the department after coming to Myrtle Beach on a vacation, having family in the area or attending Coastal Carolina University.

Those 40 new positions means the department has many young officers, who are at the highest risk for leaving during their first few years in the profession.

“These hours are long, you see and hear a whole lot of things that you wouldn’t have if you weren’t a police officer,” Vest said. “It is not an easy job by any stretch of the imagination. It is a calling and it is something you have to be really committed to want to do.”

To help retain that flood of new officers, Vest said the department is offering more training and has made mental health care professionals available.

Forming community connections

As a school resource officer at Myrtle Beach High School, Chris Holmes works to build connections and stop crime in youth before it can grow.

“A lot of times, I am the first encounter they have with law enforcement,” he said. “So, if I can build that relationship earlier, that can build that relationship moving forward.”

His role in the 2017 plan has focused on building those connections, changing those students’ perceptions of police and stopping crime in youth before it can become a pattern.

Holmes comes from a place of authority, but also wants the students to know that he’s also a normal person who went to middle and high school, just like them. 

A former teacher, he’s seen those relationships change the course of a student’s life. With one, Holmes said he went from a negative first encounter to opening a dialogue with the student and his family. Now, Holmes and the student work out together.

“I repeat to them all the time that there is nothing we can’t work through,” Holmes said. 

Although he admits that browsing Craigslist and then applying to work in an area he’d only visited once is unconventional, Holmes felt like the city really needed officers. 

And yes, he did find a grill.

“It is in my backyard right now,” he said.

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