Fighting crime, small-town style

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Fighting crime, small-town style

By LORI YOUNT<br>The Beaufort Gazette
Published Sunday, September 3, 2006 in The Island Packet  |  1146 Words  |  /BeaufortGazette/local_news

The night of Aug. 25 was an eerily uneventful Friday night for Beaufort police. Cpl. Mike King had arrested only one person -- on warrants -- and written even fewer tickets as the clock neared 5 a.m. Saturday and the end of his 12-hour shift. Sure, there was a fight at the movie theater earlier, but nothing else, not even a tumble at a downtown bar. '
Despite this slow night, Beaufort police have found themselves busier, at times overwhelmed, this summer with two abductions and sexual assaults, a murder, a bank robbery and an armed robbery where a shot was fired. '
King said he thinks though he's seeing more crime in Beaufort, the spate of violent crimes within the span of a few months was more of a coincidence. '
"It's still nothing like where I came from," said King, who is from the Los Angeles area, as he cruised down S.C. 170 in his patrol car at about midnight. '
His sister and her fiancee work for the Los Angeles Police Department. "When I did a ride-along, when I got in, they were backed up 20 calls." '
King, who joined the Beaufort department four years ago after being stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, has far less stress than that while on duty. He scoured the streets of Beaufort proper for something amiss while the radio remained largely silent. '
From 2000 to 2004, the calls for service at the police department have doubled, from 15,000 to 30,000, Beaufort police Chief Jeff Dowling said, and in the first six months of this year, there have been more than 20,000 calls. '
Though the population of Beaufort hasn't changed much in the past six years, the influx of people living in Beaufort County affects Beaufort police as much as any other local law enforcement departments, Dowling said. Surveys the department conduct every year show that 80 percent of the people that Beaufort police come across, whether callers, suspects or victims, live outside city limits. '
The department reached its peak number of officers in 2002, when it was allotted 48 full-time positions, a roster which was cut back to 46 in 2004 even as the calls increased.'
However, this is the first time in quite a few months all 47 positions allotted the department have been filled because of recruitment and retention difficulties, Dowling said.'
The hiring of at least four officers in the past two months wouldn't have been possible without the $23,000 the City Council set aside at the beginning of the fiscal year in July for retention and recruitment, he said. Dowling used the money to provide signing bonuses to the new officers, including one who already had almost four years experience, which he said is a rarity for his department with its starting salary of about $30,400 for those with no experience. '
This year he also convinced the city to provide a take-home vehicle program for all officers who live in the county after an officer left to join the Bluffton police complaining being he couldn't drive his patrol car to and from work, as other departments allow. '
And now Dowling is preparing to ask for more from council members, upon their request. On Sept. 12, he plans on presenting a pay increase for all officers excluding command staff and the addition of more patrol officers. '
"Our goal would be to add on to current shifts," he said. There are 28 officers whose sole job it is to patrol the street in four teams, and at its fuller staff level, about five officers are patrolling at any time. '
The scare factor in recent high-profile crimes has helped put the spotlight on the department's needs, but Dowling doesn't see higher crime something unique in Beaufort, just that the city is part of a nationwide trend of a rise in violent crime. '
"We're not alone in this -- it's hitting everyone," he said.'
According to preliminary data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, violent crime increased by 2.5 percent nationwide, breaking a trend in recent years of crime going down. In the South, violent crime has increased 1.8 percent between 2004 and 2005, with murder, at a 5.3 percent increase, and robbery, at a 4.8 percent increase, rising the most, according to the FBI's preliminary report.'
Dowling said that although his officers are often stretched thin, they've handled this summer's major crimes quite well, with arrests made in all of them.'
"I have to give them good marks for their performances," Dowling said. "They worked hard on those cases."'
As residents and businesses were frightened of all things "that never happen here," council members took a special interest in police affairs. Councilwoman Donnie Beer proposed a last-minute addition of $65,000 in the budget to the department, mostly for security cameras downtown. The proposal was rejected, but the council invited Dowling to give his two cents in the upcoming council meeting.'
"I'm hoping for something we can grab on and hold on to make it safer for citizens and tourists," Beer said. "We don't want to get the reputation we're not a safe place to be."'
Councilman Gary Fordham, who opposed the cameras in June, said adding patrol officers would top his list of additions to the department.'
"Unfortunately, we have had a rash of crime, which I think was out of the ordinary, and I think the best reaction depends on the recommendations the chief might have," he said. '
As bars closed Aug. 25, no calls came for police escorts for downtown employees to their cars. After one female employee was abducted and raped in May, escorts were requested for a while, but with arrests in the case, concerns have calmed and employees usually leave in their own groups rather than request law enforcement, King said. '
Tall, young and with an easygoing manner and relaxed stance, King is the type of cop you want to face if you had to be pulled over that Friday night -- fair and forgiving. '
He wrote a ticket for speeding to a young man from Charleston clothed in camouflage in a souped-up grey pickup with a hunting dog crate in the back, but ultimately King didn't have the heart to give it to him after the hunter came back clear on checks on his driver's license and license plate. '
After a quick check of Pigeon Point Boat Landing at about 4:15 a.m., only to find an early bird shrimper, King said he still feels as if he's patrolling a small town, even after this summer.'
"Obviously, we're going to have more problems because we're going to" grow, he said. "But we're not going to get as bad as people think."