HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – This weekend isn't just another Bikefest for North Myrtle Beach police; it's the first year ever where they'll have body-worn cameras.
With the thousands of people coming into town from all over the country, area leaders say the timing couldn't have been better for North Myrtle Beach public safety to finally get its own personal body cameras.
The timing wasn't on purpose, though. The cameras were actually ordered last year, and those orders just came in two weeks ago. Most officers are just now getting used to them. On Wednesday, one officer was showing another the best way to put it on. Several officers say they're excited to have that extra security for citizens and police - it's described as the "silent witness."
Sergeant Alex Johnson has had his camera on for ten days, but he's had a car camera for years. In addition to the cameras, the officers also received new portable finger-printing machines. Within minutes, the device can tell officers who a person is, and if they have a record.
The body cameras connect to a server, and the video it shoots can be kept for years. Some cameras have a Bluetooth that enables the department to monitor officers in real time.
So if you're getting a ticket and the officer is wearing a body camera, the chief or lieutenant could be watching all the way from home base. Sgt. Johnson says it's too early to tell how the cameras change policing in North Myrtle Beach, but it's a good time to get them.
"In this job, things can change in a second, and remembering a difficult procedure may not always occur very well, or you may not remember everything in the heat of the moment, or if something changes or, if you know, the situation escalates," Sgt. Johnson said.
Cherry Grove isn't known as party central for the weekend, a lot of officers here will be in the Wyndy Hill and Crescent Beach areas monitoring the foot traffic. There will be cruisers and bike and motorist police out and about with the extra agencies in town to help.
All officers here will have their new cameras on, and North Myrtle Beach fire will also be equipped with cameras for the first time.
But new police initiatives don't end there - community policing has become an important part of patrol for North Myrtle Beach, especially during Memorial Day weekend. The statistics show it really works there.
WMBF Reporter Meredith Helline heard a lot about community policing and its success, but she wanted to see it for herself, so she rode along with two police officers. They went house-to-house in Cherry Grove, introducing themselves and seeing what was up. Meredith and the officers were invited to a couple cook-outs, so any stigma that exists between law enforcement and bikers there was shattered.
It's been a year since Sgt. Johnson has seen the group of friends from Pittsburgh. The friends have been coming down for Bikefest for years, but have noticed the change in policing.
"We wave at him and come over…from then it was good. So he comes and checks in," said biker Danny Dawkins.
North Myrtle Beach police are on a 'welcoming team' that mingles with Bikefest visitors, gets to know them a little, hands out welcome brochures, and lets the visitors know police are there if they need them. The welcoming team started last year and is part of the community policing push in the city.
Officers stand by the facts: it's working, and the Bikefest crime statistics prove it. From 2014 to 2015, North Myrtle Beach arrests went down by 58 during Memorial Day weekend. Tickets went down by 313, and calls for service declined by almost 300, too. Sgt. Johnson says it's as simple as a handshake and genuine conversation. Not everyone the officers meet want to talk, but they remember someone took the time to say hello, and that's when it counts.
"They've developed community contacts, people know them, you know, they know people on a first-name basis people know them on a first-name basis," Sgt. Johnson added. "And so it works and it works well. It gives people the sense, 'That's my officer, that's my person I can count on, my person I call when I have a problem.'"
In case someone loses the officer's card, the welcoming brochure includes important numbers for North Myrtle Beach. Not everyone will see their same officer; the chief said about 100 extra officers from out of town will help out and team-up with the local ones here.