Myrtle Beach considers increasing police presence

Myrtle Beach city staff is looking to see if there is a need for increased police presence downtown during summer weekends.

The city is in the process of looking at problems downtown, putting a moratorium on nightclubs or bars in the area that could serve more than 150 patrons in place in January in an attempt to curb crime and negative instances.

Downtown is defined as the area from Sixth Avenue South to 16th Avenue North, from the Atlantic Ocean to Oak Street and Broadway Street.

Budget director Michael Shelton told Myrtle Beach City Council on Sept. 24 that received about $700,000 more than expected in accommodations tax funds last fiscal year, which ended June 30. That money is to be used for tourism-related expenses, which Myrtle Beach said includes paying police officers and firefighters to protect the millions of tourists that come to Myrtle Beach each year.

Councilman Wayne Gray said he believes that money could be used to increase not only police presence, but all city services along Ocean Boulevard.

“The boardwalk district has more people going there and visiting than it did three years ago,” Gray said. “We’ll spend the next several weeks looking at some ideas.”

Business owners downtown have said that they don’t think having bars and nightclubs on Ocean Boulevard leads to crime, but instead asked for an increased police presence.

Victor Shamah, owner of The Bowery, said last month his major concern is what he referred to as a lack of police presence unless there’s an incident. The Bowery, at 110 Ninth Avenue North, is classified by the city as a nightclub.

“The first step is to get the right amount of officers,” he said. “There are not enough anywhere in the city.”

Shamah said tourism downtown has increased since the initial decline seen after the Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park closed in 2006 and the boardwalk opened in 2010, but the police force hasn’t increased proportionally.

City manager Tom Leath said, if there is a crime issue downtown, there is more than one way to increase presence along the boulevard: hire additional police officers to serve year-round, allow current officers to work additional overtime or hire private security to be stationed downtown and work with police.

No matter the approach, Leath said he feels the increased presence should be paid for by the Downtown Redevelopment Corp. The DRC was created by the city to “facilitate the revitalization of downtown Myrtle Beach,” according to the group’s website.

Leath said he has asked the police department to review concerns downtown and recommend solutions – if it is determined any are needed.

Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall said in an email that the department still was evaluating the number of reported incidents downtown during the 2013 tourist season.

“While adding more officers may sound like the answer to the problems facing this area, it is not,” he said. “It certainly can be one aspect of a plan to improve the conditions and environment along that stretch of the boulevard, but in it of itself, it will not have a significant impact until and unless the character of the area changes.”

Gall said the city and businesses need to work together on a comprehensive plan to renovate properties and address other concerns downtown, which has been seen through work done by DRC and the Oceanfront Merchants Association.

“We cannot expect to arrest our way to improvements,” he said. “However, I am a proponent of increased visibility and coverage to create a feeling of safety for the residents, business owners and visitors.”

If it is determined that increased presence was needed downtown, Gall said he did not believe it would be possible to hire officers and have them trained with enough experience in time for summer 2014, saying additional overtime would be a more effective solution. He also added that additional overtime was not preferred due to the heavy workload the officers already undertake.

“We face challenges with the other issues occurring away from Ocean [Boulevard], that are as serious or more,” Gall said. “The residents, business owners and visitors to these areas need the same level of attention. We are working [with] DRC and the budget office to develop proposals to offer for consideration.”