Should Beaufort sheriff charge for 911 hangups, false alarms? Report raises the idea
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office is not doing enough to reduce the high number of car crashes on Hilton Head Island, instead spending too much of its time responding to 911 hangups and alarm calls.
That’s one of several findings in a scathing draft of a new audit, paid for by the Town of Hilton Head, that assesses whether town residents are getting their $3.6 million worth of police services from the sheriff’s office each year.
Among the other findings by Public Safety Strategies Group (PSSG), a Massachusetts-based organization that conducted the audit: Native Islanders feel their neighborhoods lack patrols, the sheriff’s office takes too long to respond to mental health calls, doesn’t implement a data-driven approach to crime and traffic safety and isn’t doing enough to address the opioid epidemic.
The audit is also critical of Sheriff P.J. Tanner, claiming he monopolized a meeting and that the sheriff’s department as a whole was uncooperative and failed to give the consultant requested data.
“This session became a presentation by the Sheriff on what he was doing as Sheriff rather than a time for the PSSG to interview BCSO members about operations,” the audit said.
BCSO disputes many of the findings. In a letter to the town written by Lt. Col. Allen Horton, BCSO claims the consultant — who it says visited the office for a single two-hour meeting in February — canceled meetings and never rescheduled and did not ask questions about provided information. The report, BCSO said, is riddled with inaccuracies and misconstrued data.
“The thing that gets me about the study is it’s useless because it doesn’t offer any information you can utilize,” said Tanner, who believes the audit is political payback by town leaders with whom he has disagreed. “I don’t know what the town paid the group to do this, but it was way too much.”
According to the contract with PSSG, the town paid $25,700.
Kym Craven, director of PSSG, declined to comment for this story, noting the group’s policy to not speak to the media prior to speaking with a client.
The audit is scheduled to be discussed for the first time at Tuesday’s meeting of the town’s Intergovernmental and Public Safety Committee, according to its chairman Bill Harkins.
‘Being accountable to taxpayers’
Town Council began questioning whether the sheriff’s office met expectations in 2016.
Harkins said Thursday it was prompted by Town Council wanting to know if they were getting what they were paying for. Its annual contract with the BCSO is the town’s third largest general fund expenditure, behind personnel and operating costs, representing roughly 4.5 percent of this year’s $79.6 million budget.
Tanner, however, said the audit was sparked by a few town leaders — including Mayor David Bennett — who were unhappy with his opposition to an Ironman competition that council wanted to bring to the island in 2015. Tanner opposed the competition because he said shutting down part of U.S. 278 posed safety concerns.
In addition, Tanner said he irked those same leaders by not presenting the sheriff’s office budget to the town in 2016. He said those discussions should be between the county and town, and not involve the sheriff. (The county pays for the sheriff’s office budget in full, and the town reimburses a portion to the county, according to the town’s director of finance John Troyer.)
Bennett said in a text message response that the performance audit had “nothing to do with the Ironman,” and “this is not about personalities and people. It’s about being accountable to taxpayers.”
The purpose, he said, was to find out if Hilton Head residents were “getting a good return for their considerable investment.” He declined further comment.
The alternative to contracting with the sheriff’s office would likely be the island getting its own police force.
That would be an expensive endeavor. For fiscal year 2019, Bluffton paid $6.6 million for its 58 full-time employee department, according to spokesperson Debbie Szpanka. And Beaufort allocated $4.4 million for its 54 sworn officers, according to police spokesperson Patrick Schmucker.
But, determining whether Hilton Head should have its own police force was not a catalyst for the audit, according to town manager Steve Riley.
“There was actually a study that looked at that more than 15 years ago,” Riley said. “It was concluded then that it would be significantly more expensive (than the current arrangement). And now with annual state budget caps, it’s not a practical conversation. You can’t raise taxes enough to do that without making seriously damaging cuts elsewhere.”
The most recent sheriff’s office contract — renewed on a monthly basis since the last one expired in January — spells out the basic services to be provided to the town. Among those, at least four patrol units and at least one patrol unit supervisor on duty 24/7, three criminal investigators, two deputies to enforce narcotics laws and a victim’s advocate.
Tanner said there are 42 deputies dedicated to the island, but on a given day, there’s about 70 deputies patrolling South of the Broad, including Hilton Head. This exceeds what is required by the contract.
The audit pointed out patrol staffing exceeded what is needed to cover calls for service.
More than 25 meetings were held with community stakeholders, town departments, gated communities and others, according to the audit. There were also five scheduled meetings with the sheriff’s office, which were turned into a group meeting by Tanner.
There was also a “resistance” from the sheriff’s office when it came to data collection, the audit said. BCSO did not provide all data requested, and did not always provide it in the requested format. In addition, PSSG claims it requested to participate in ride-alongs, but the request was denied by the sheriff.
Tanner said he did deny that request, as ride-alongs were not part of the study. Regarding the presentation, Tanner said he took the opportunity to give PSSG background on the sheriff’s office.
“It’s a big machine, with a lot of moving parts,” Tanner said. “What I did was I took the opportunity to explain everything. ...”
He also said the consultant was given every piece of data requested.
Overall, BCSO says it was “disappointed” in the report and notes multiple instances of chart and graph inaccuracies and examples of conflicting information.
Riley said though the audit did seem to have “back and forth” information, the group did “OK” and produced a “decent work product.”
“The bottom line is they (BCSO) do a pretty good job, but probably could do more in the area of public outreach and communication,” Riley said.
The audit’s findings
▪ BCSO isn’t doing enough to curb the high number of car crashes on the island.
The sheriff’s office does not apply for traffic grants or implement traffic safety programs, the audit reads. They also do not implement a “data-driven approach to crime and traffic safety (DDACTS),” which uses crime and traffic data to determine where law enforcement and other resources should go, according to the National Institute of Justice. The audit calls DDACTS a “best practice.”
More education and “high visibility patrols” are needed, along with additional signage, according to the audit. The town is currently discussing possible safety improvements to some island intersections.
In the letter to the town, BCSO said it has speed sign trailers and digital message boards. It also said that traffic enforcement is determined by a weekly analysis of crashes. Spokesperson Capt. Bob Bromage called it a “similar approach” to DDACTS.
▪ BCSO spends too much time responding to 911 hangups and alarm calls.
Based on charts in the audit, between 2015 and 2017, 11 percent of all calls were 911 hangups and 16 percent were alarms.
The consultant suggests the town implement a fee to people who have multiple false alarm calls and give gated communities more power to investigate. BCSO could also educate the public on “proper 911 use.”
Tanner said gated communities already respond to alarm calls, and said the sheriff’s office will continue to respond to all 911 hangups and alarm calls.
▪ Response times are too long for some calls for service, including mental health, medical and overdose calls.
The audit says response times range from just over 6 minutes for overdoses and almost 30 minutes for mental health calls.
The sheriff’s office, however, says the data was not read correctly. For mental health calls, transport time was included in the average, Horton said.
“There’s the time in which we get dispatched, the time in which we respond, but quite often, if we transport that person to the hospital for evaluation, we’re with them for an extended period of time,” Horton said. “It could be two or three hours.”
▪ Native Islanders feel ignored.
Based on interviews with the consultant, some Native Islanders report fights and open drug dealing in their neighborhoods, adding that BCSO does not patrol the communities enough. Some said residents don’t call BCSO for help because they don’t believe they will get a response.
Tanner, however, said it was “flat out untrue to suggest we don’t have a good relationship with the Native Islanders.”
▪ There is a divide between what the community wants and what they are getting.
The consultant suggests more community outreach, and a “more collaborative relationship” would solve issues. Community members were “vocal” about their concerns over a lack of interaction with the community, the audit said, though no specific examples were given.
Horton said the audit’s claims are “vague” statements without information to back them up.
BCSO claims it is “strongly connected” to communities on the island, participating in 62 events each year as well as providing Nixle alerts to keep the community informed.
▪ Patrol staffing exceeds the need
Based on a review of July 2016 data, more deputies were staffed than needed to cover calls for service, the audit said. PSSG suggests a full staffing analysis be conducted.
Tanner said as a tourist destination, the number of law enforcement officers deployed “changes all the time.”
“It can go to 40,000 (people) one week to 75,000 the next,” Tanner said. “We have to be in a position to be flexible and roll with it and make sure we are in a position to provide services to Hilton Head.”
▪ Community members feel BCSO does not focus on community problems, such as transient populations and the opioid epidemic.
No additional details were included in the audit.
Bromage said through public education, events and drug drop off boxes, the county has seen a “significant decline in opioid overdoses.”