HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson said the time is now for uniting the county's law enforcement agencies.
In a statement released Wednesday evening, Thompson asked for the Horry County Council to bring the issue to the citizens of Horry County in the form of a referendum to decide on the merger of the sheriff's office and the police department.
Read Thompson's full statement below:
The Horry County Police Department was created over five decades ago as a result of a dispute among elected officials of Horry County. As Horry County Sheriff, a proudly serving elected official of Horry County, I am calling for the unification of the county law enforcement agencies.
I served twenty one years with the Horry County Police Department and have now served fifteen years as Sheriff of Horry County. I am uniquely situated to bring these two departments successfully and seamlessly together for the benefit of the people I serve and, in addition, for the benefit of the fine men and women of Horry County law enforcement. They, who serve each day tirelessly and at great risk of personal harm, now have the opportunity to come together, combine their resources in an effort to better serve the citizens of Horry County.
The consolidation of these departments is timely. To remain two separate departments is not in the best interest of the citizens of Horry County and is not justifiable, either from a performance or financial standpoint. Forty five of the forty six counties in this State have a single county law enforcement agency, their Sheriff's Office. Horry County alone maintains two departments. The citizens are deserving of a law enforcement agency that is accountable to them through one elected official who serves at their pleasure.
As the Sheriff and Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Horry County, now is the time for our council to bring this issue to the citizens of Horry County in the form of a referendum to decide on the merger of law enforcement in this county. This consolidation will make county-wide law enforcement more effective and more accountable to those we serve.
Thompson's remarks on Wednesday followed Horry County Councilman Paul Prince saying that consolidating the Horry County Police Department and the Horry County Sheriff's Office is what is best for the county, and wants to know what it would take to accomplish this.
At the council's Public Safety Committee meeting Wednesday, Prince recommended they consult with the county attorney and come back at the next meeting to figure out what it would take to consolidate the two law enforcement agencies.
Specifically, Prince wants to know whether it would be a decision made by the council, or if it would go to a public referendum, he said in a phone interview with reporter Conor McCue.
Prince said this is an issue that has persisted for years, and he thinks consolidation will be more efficient, easier on the county council, and "what's best for Horry County in the long run."
Documents obtained Monday revealed that the Horry County Police Department paid $61,145.37 into the state's retirement system so that Chief Saundra Rhodes, who abruptly announced her retirement late last month, could enjoy full retirement status and benefits.
Prince spoke out Tuesday after learning about the money spent for Rhodes' early retirement, saying he's an elected official and felt he should have been made aware of the decision prior to its handling.
The councilman added he got a call from the county administrator about Rhodes' retiring and retirement date, but was not notified of other details. He felt those specifics should have been made known to council to vote on before actions were taken.
Rhodes' last day as Chief of Police for the Horry County Police Department was May 6, 2016. She announced her retirement in a news release on April 25.
Rhodes' retirement comes as several individuals in the department are under investigation, including a detective who was fired after a 2015 investigation revealed sustained allegations of sexual harassment, and another detective who allegedly failed to investigate over 80 cases fully or appropriately.
Then, on Wednesday, Horry County Police Deputy Chief of Support Scott Rutherford announced his retirement, five days after Rhodes served her last day before retiring.
Horry County Administrator, Chris Eldridge, has appointed Deputy Chief Kelvin Waites as Interim Chief, according to a news release from the county government.
On Thursday, Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, had some tough words for Eldridge and his handling of the department.
"Everything points to the administrator's office," Canterbury said. "He's been the architect of reducing benefits, reducing time off for the officers, forcing employees to train off duty and then have to back the time out. It further reduces the number of officers on the street, and at some point, the lack of officers on the street becomes dangerous for the police officers and general public."
In response, Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus issued the following statement:
"Horry County Government is an at-will employer and operates under the administrator-council form of government as regulated by state law. It is the function of the county administrator to oversee the day-to-day operations of the county and its more than 2,000 employees while being fiscally responsible to stay within the budget as adopted by Horry County Council on an annual basis. As chairman, I am in daily contact with our county administrator to make sure we stay within our approved budget and policies as adopted by council. Our council meets several times a month, whether by committee or council meetings, to address and receive feedback on various issues facing the county and its employees. Employee policy changes are made transparent to all and are voted on by full council."
The Horry County Police Department is a full-service law enforcement agency that separated from the Sheriff's Office in the 1959 when the late Senator James P. Stevens created it, according to Horry County spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier and the HCPD website. It was "overwhelmingly re-endorsed by our citizens in a 1998 referendum," the site states, and is the only remaining county police department in the state.
The first Horry County Sheriff, John Durant, served in 1801. The office "serves papers, serves warrants and maintains & secures the Court House," according to its website. "We are responsible for serving approximately 1,700 Civil Papers each month." The sheriff's office was located in the Historic Courthouse on 3rd Avenue in Conway until the Government and Justice Center opened in May 2002.