During a community meeting at St. Helena Elementary School on Wednesday evening, members of the St. Helena community listen as Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner speaks about ways that the community and law enforcement can work together to minimize crime on St. Helena Island.(Photo: Delayna Earley The Beaufort Gazette)
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The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office has devised a new plan for crime management on St. Helena Island, despite misgivings from some residents.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner presided over a community meeting at St. Helena Elementary School Wednesday night, where approximately 300 residents gathered to discuss new law-enforcement tactics to be put in place in the weeks to come.
Tanner and Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone recently decided to enact a little-known statute called "mob law" to force compliance among witnesses who are suspected of having knowledge of violent crime but are afraid to come forward.
Officials feel stronger measures are needed due to the number of violent crimes that have plagued St. Helena in the past several months.
Under the new plan, officials could identify witnesses who may have knowledge of a crime and subpoena them to testify before investigators, Stone, a judge and a court reporter. Subpoenas can be served before criminal indictments are issued against suspects -- as long as the investigation is about a violent crime committed by two or more people acting as co-conspirators.
If witnesses under subpoena don't cooperate, they can be held in contempt of court and go to jail.
Current investigations that could benefit from the new plan include: a June 21 nightclub shooting that left two men dead and two injured, a driveway shooting death, the discovery of a body in a burning car and a drive-by shooting involving an 18-year-old victim.
Only two arrests have been made in connection with these incidents, which happened during the past eight months. Tanner attributed the poor results to a lack of witness testimony that could link physical evidence to suspects.
As Tanner explained the need for witnesses to come forward, he held up an eight-page list of 39 defendants with 130 charges among them.
"All of these are from St. Helena Island," Tanner said, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
Tanner added that witnesses sometimes will cooperate with law enforcement but stop short of giving officers enough information for an arrest. "The things we're not able to get are things we need," Tanner said, "to hold someone accountable for a criminal act."
One resident said he felt the focus of the meeting was misdirected.
"Absolutely nothing was said about prevention," Marque Fireall of St. Helena said. "I was expecting to hear new community policing efforts ... instead it was, 'You better tell us what we need to know, or we'll put you in jail, too.' "
Still others left disappointed after Tanner canceled a planned Q&A session. Tanner, who was expecting about half the turnout, said the number of attendees would have made an open forum too unwieldy. Tanner told residents that another discussion could be held within the next few weeks.
Some residents, however, felt slighted by the abrupt ending.
"It was helful to a certain extent," Faranica Reynolds, a 20-year resident of the island said after the two-and-a-half-hour session ended. "But I feel our voices should have been heard."