Homicides and suicides in Beaufort County reached their highest levels in at least a decade in 2012, statistics released by the Coroner's Office indicate.
And Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he intends to tackle the rise in homicides in part by lobbying the General Assembly and the state Sheriff's Association for stricter penalties for unlawful carrying of a firearm.
The Coroner's Office said this week that 14 people were victims of homicide in 2012, the highest number it has on record since 2002. That number includes instances of self-defense when deadly force is used.
The Sheriff's Office, which has not yet released its full 2012 crime statistics, uses different criteria to define homicides -- for instance, it excludes deaths that result from self-defense. According to its preliminary numbers, seven homicides were committed within its jurisdiction, which includes the Town of Hilton Head Island and unincorporated areas of the county, in 2012, discounting two deaths as a result of self-defense, one voluntary manslaughter and one involuntary manslaughter case.
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Two homicides were committed in the city of Beaufort and one in Port Royal.
'IT USED TO BE FIST FIGHTS'
Among the most stark examples of the tragedy of gun violence in the past year was the September shooting death of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton. He was caught in the crossfire of a gun battle while playing in the front yard of his grandmother's Hilton Head Island home. Two of three men charged in connection with Singleton's death are convicted felons prohibited from owning firearms.
That's one reason Tanner seeks stiffer penalties for unlawful carrying of guns and an indication that some are turning to more deadly means to settle disputes.
"It used to be a fist fight years ago, and now it's a gunfight," Tanner said.
Island resident Melanie Jones, who organized a "Stop the Violence" vigil and march after Singleton was killed, said she is alarmed that her home is becoming like "the wild, wild west." She called for more law enforcement presence in crime-ridden neighborhoods so "people come forward when these tragic events take place."
Singleton's death was one of five reported on Hilton Head in 2012, according to Coroner Ed Allen, the highest total in the county.
St. Helena Island had the second-highest number, with three. Two of those stemmed from a nightclub shooting in June, for which two men have been charged in cases that are still pending, according to the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office.
Tanner said he also wants residents to cooperate with law enforcement to bring those numbers down. On St. Helena, Tanner and 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone used a little-know law called "the mob statute" to compel hesitant witnesses to talk.
SUICIDES ALSO INCREASE
Last year also was a record year for suicides, according to Allen, with 23 people taking their own lives -- the highest number in a decade.
"When you look at the increase in suicides ... it's stress related to the economy," Allen said. "In some cases, health conditions are also a contributing factor to suicide."
Andrea Allen, the assistant director for the Coastal Empire Community Mental Health centers in Beaufort and four other counties, agreed with Allen's assessment.
"The economy had a lot to do with what happened," Andrea Allen said. "Chronic health problems in the elderly, with the costs and the drain on their families, is another reason for the increase."
Andrea Allen said people considering suicide should seek help from someone, "whether it's a mental-health professional, their doctor or, for some, their minister or priest."
She also called on family members of those with mental health problems to reach out to relatives and avoid leaving them alone.
"There needs to be more awareness of our family members who are going through difficult times," she said.
Ed Allen said population growth is also a factor in the high number of homicides and suicides. His office answered more calls for service -- 1,105 in total -- than it ever has. The total number of calls the coroner's office fields has increased each year for the past four years.
Allen said his office is now processing applications for another deputy coroner. Renovations are beginning at the former Department of Disabilities and Special Needs building in Port Royal to create a morgue and more space for Allen and his staff.
Other 2012 statistics released by the County Coroner's Office include:
- Shooting of 8-year-old boy tops southern Beaufort County list of 2012 crime stories, Dec. 26, 2012
- Stolen firetruck incident tops 2012 northern Beaufort County crime stories, Dec. 26, 2012
- Four in custody following shooting death of Hilton Head 8-year-old, Sept. 3, 2012
- 8-year-old boy shot to death in Hilton Head Island crossfire, Sept. 1, 2012
- Plans to build Beaufort County morgue, upgrade coroner's office on track, Aug. 29, 2012
- Man charged in St. Helena nightclub shooting denied bond, June 22, 2012
- Two charged in St. Helena nightclub shooting that leaves 2 dead, 2 injured, June 21, 2012