HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Horry County Police Department currently has about 15 vacancies, up from zero at the end of last year.
"We're losing folks," HCPD Chief Joseph Hill said. "Our vacancy rate is rather high right now."
Chief Hill said the number of vacancies has grown in just a few months because four people retired, some people resigned, and three people were terminated after investigations into conduct.
HCPD staff are being trained now on a new automated internal affairs program to more accurately track disciplinary problems.
"It's important we adequately track our complaints, but more importantly, we have an early warning system built into IEPro that alerts us when officers are heading down the wrong path," Chief Hill said. "Whether it's attendance, whether it's use of force complaints, vehicle crashes, which is a big concern for council, we get a heads up through automation that we need to pull that officer in and either provide training, redirection, or discipline."
After a year of lawsuits against HCPD and criticism due to four former Horry County Police officers being charged with misconduct, a cultural shift is happening in the department.
"My mission here was to change the ship a little bit, the direction of the ship," Hill said.
However, when there are terminations, the need for recruitment grows even more.
"My recruiting and hiring team when I got here consisted of one person," he said. "How are we going to hire and retain folks with one person? So now I've got another person in there."
Chief Hill said pay is a problem. The starting salary for an Horry County police officer is $35,300. South Carolina Highway Patrol offers $38,273 for a trooper without experience.
"Officers are trying to feed their families. They're going to make that choice to leave just to be able to keep the lights on and make a better life for themselves and I can't blame them," Chief Hill said.
The department offers other benefits.
"One thing everybody doesn't always look at is we pay for 100 percent of their health insurance," said Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus. "We let them take vehicles home where a lot of other municipalities don't, so that saves them a lot of time, a lot of wear and tear on their own personal vehicles and gas."
Lazarus said class-one officers were given a five percent pay raise two years ago, while other county employees got a two percent raise.
For fiscal year 2018, Horry County Council is looking at a merit-based pay raise for all county employees of up to five percent, but Chief Hill says that won't really help with retention.
"We're dodging bullets, knives. We are encountering folks that would do us harm every day," he said. "Our career choices in law enforcement is challenging and it's very dangerous. How do I compensate somebody for that fairly to keep them in this profession?"
He said he hopes a bigger pay raise for police can come in the future, especially once that cultural shift takes place too.
"I didn't tackle pay raises this year because, one, I need to build up that community of trust with Horry County Police Department. We've got a lot of bridge building to do," Chief Hill said. "Once folks have that confidence in us that I think we're deserving of then they're going to stand behind us for additional pay compensations. I haven't forgotten what I said when I got hired and I get reminded of that every day."
He said it costs about $200,000 to train one officer and it can take nearly a year for them to go through all of the necessary steps to become street effective.
Chief Hill requested nine new patrol officers for the next Horry County budget. That budget passed first reading Thursday.
He said he really wants to focus on community engagement and he recently created a specific team of officers to work directly with communities on ongoing crime.
Three officers are doing specialized training now as part of this Community Outreach Team, or COT Team.
Chief Hill said the department used to have a COT Team years ago before budget cuts dissolved it.
The officers will focus on traffic enforcement and most importantly going to areas that are crime hot spots to work with people there to solve problems.
"I've got a lot planned for this unit," Chief Hill said. "They know this going into it, but I think it's going to be worthwhile for the citizens of Horry County."
Chief Hill said the department is also getting a new analytic program to help identify those hot spots and use predictive analysis to place police in certain areas to deter crime.