When an 8-year-old boy was killed nine months ago in the crossfire of a Hilton Head Island gun battle, town officials said they would work with law enforcement to prevent a repeat of such a tragedy.
However, some council members were taken aback during a budget workshop last week when Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner offered a suggestion -- and a cost estimate -- for tamping down the sort of violence that killed Khalil Singleton.
Responding to a question from Councilman Bill Harkins, Tanner said a five-officer, special-enforcement unit could be created to police the island's high-crime areas, at a cost of $737,000 in the next fiscal year.
The proposal comes near the end of the town's budget process -- too close to be carefully considered, some on Town Council believe.
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"I'm not against talking about it, but I am against acting on something that hasn't been thoroughly vetted," Mayor Drew Laughlin said, adding last week was the first time he had heard the sheriff's suggestion.
Tanner said the unit could police pockets of the island where violent crimes and property crimes are most prevalent. In the first quarter of 2013, such locations included the South Forest Beach, Mathews Drive and Squire Pope Road areas, according to a Sheriff's Office report.
The team would comprise four deputies and one investigator. It also could be assigned to work island events and festivals, and patrol bars and areas that need more enforcement during tourist season. For example, the unit could be used in the North and South Forest Beach areas during spring break, Tanner said.
Members of Town Council and the town's Public Safety Committee have said the sheriff's suggestion deserves discussion and analysis. But several agreed that it has a slim chance of being adopted by June 18, when council is expected to give final approval of the 2013-14 budget.
"We as a council (need to) really look at the details and see what the program has to offer," Councilman Marc Grant said.
The unit would increase the amount the town pays the Sheriff's Office for police service by 25 percent. This fiscal year, the town paid the Sheriff's Office just more than $2,915,000.
"Three quarters of a million dollars a year isn't just going to magically materialize," Laughlin said.
The cost could be lowered to about $500,000 by forming a three-officer team, Tanner said.
"We can do four or three," Tanner said during an interview Thursday. "If that's what they support, then I support it."
Tanner said residents have indicated they want to see more deputies on patrol.
The area around The Oaks apartments, off William Hilton Parkway, is an example of a place that could use more policing, Councilwoman Kim Likins said.
The apartment complex has been the site of several violent episodes, including a midday shooting in November that left a man injured. The apartments are adjacent to the parking lot and sports fields of Hilton Head Christian Academy, where Likins' sons go to school.
She said there is "dire concern" among parents about stray bullets -- bullets like those that killed Singleton as he played with friends in his grandmother's front yard.
"We have had one fatal shooting of a child and ... I do not want someone to look me in the eye and say, 'What have you done to prevent this from happening again?' and my answer be, 'Nothing,'" said Likins, adding she hopes the town can at least partially fund a special unit.
Tanner cautioned that even a five-person unit cannot prevent all tragedies.
"Based on all that I know about (the Singleton) case, ... (a special enforcement unit) would not have had an impact that day," he said. "We would have had to have a crystal ball on my desk that would have told me the future of the day."
The Sheriff's Office currently has one five-officer special enforcement unit that Tanner said he deploys throughout the county for traffic stops, "proactive policing" and public-event security. The unit spends about 25 percent of its time on Hilton Head, Tanner said. That patrol time would not decrease if the island added its own unit, he said.
The unit's proactive policing has helped build relationships in high-crime areas, such as parts of Burton and Lady's Island, and has opened lines of communication that, "quite frankly, have been numb for a long time," Tanner said
"How many crimes do we prevent from occurring? Probably a lot .... And that's not just a policing effort -- that's everyone's effort," he said.
On Hilton Head, both violent crimes -- murder, assault, robbery and rape -- and property crimes, which include burglary, theft and car theft, have declined over the past five years, according to Sheriff's Office data.
Last year, 126 violent crimes were reported -- a 23 percent drop from the 164 reported in 2008. Property crimes dropped to 1,312 reported incidents, a 25 percent decline during the same period.
The decline coincides with a 79-percent, countywide increase in "proactive calls," which include scheduled traffic enforcement and instances in which officers notice something amiss while on patrol, Tanner said. Meanwhile, responses to calls for service from residents declined by 8 percent.
If council doesn't approve the money before the new budget is adopted, it could still amend the budget later in the fiscal year to hire the additional staff, according to town manager Steve Riley.