Defund the police? It isn’t what you think
Even without a parade, the town of Pawleys Island will be a busy place on the Fourth of July. Its four full-time and four part-time police officers will all be on duty.
But the Town Council is debating whether to cut back its police department during the rest of the year. A survey of property owners conducted as part of its strategic planning process found opinions are divided.
While “Defund the Police” has become a slogan associated with the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, for Pawleys Island it is part of the discussion of how a town without a municipal property tax pays for a growing list of projects that property owners say are essential.
“I would never be an advocate for no more police force,” Council Member Guerry Green said at a strategic planning retreat last month.
But he pointed out that the largest portion of the town’s operating budget goes to the police department. In the current budget, police account for $450,000 out of $947,500 earmarked for the town’s operations.
Public safety ranked fourth out of 11 items property owners were asked to rank in a survey of top issues. There were 263 responses. Maintaining the beach ranked first, followed by low taxes and mitigation of flooding.
Comments included with the rankings called for police to focus more attention on parking, trespassing and unruly behavior on the beach. Some called the police “excellent” and want the level of service maintained.
Other comments questioned the need for the police and said the officers are “overbearing.” One called the use of all-terrain vehicles to patrol the beach “hot-rodding.”
“I hear that we have too much police,” Green said. “I hear that a lot.”
Still, he proposed maintaining police protection by working with the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office. “We’re already paying for that service,” he said.
Sheriff Carter Weaver is the nephew of Council Member Ashley Carter. If the sheriff’s office has to increase its patrols on the island, it will have to add staff, Carter said.
“Having the police presence is very important to us,” he added.
The council cut the number of full-time officers from five to four last year in order to increase police pay to keep it in line with the sheriff’s office. Council Member Rocky Holliday said the department was able to maintain full coverage and that the idea was “worth revisiting.”
Cutting one position means the town no longer has full coverage, Police Chief Mike Fanning said.
Pawleys police cover the island from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. The remaining four hours, the sheriff’s office responds to emergencies, Fanning said.
Most of the calls for police come between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., he said, but he is concerned that gaps in coverage could lead to a rise in break-ins.
“Reducing staff is going to reduce presence on the island,” Fanning said.
Council Member Sarah Zimmerman questioned how many deputies are available. “I heard it was two,” she said.
Green said he thinks there are more.
The sheriff’s office has more staff on Waccamaw Neck during the day, Fanning said, but at night there is one patrol deputy for Murrells Inlet and one for the Pawleys Island area.
If the county can cover the area with two deputies, “it seems like we are certainly not understaffed,” Holliday said.
The police can change the way they operate, Fanning said. The question is, “how much do you think your constituents would tolerate” if there is less coverage and more crime, he added.
Officer Joe Riotto, who was cut from full- to part-time last year, was on patrol last weekend. Most of his time was spent writing parking tickets or answering parking complaints.
Riotto recalled the time he got a call from an absentee owner who said his wife threw out the linens with the trash by mistake. Riotto had a look. Nothing.
“Dig a little deeper,” the man said.
Riotto found the linens and, he added, “we made a friend.”