Crime & Public Safety

‘Were you the devil?’: Beaufort County sheriff and consultant argue over performance audit

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and a Hilton Head Island consultant exchanged verbal shots Tuesday about a new audit that criticizes Tanner’s policing of the island.

Tanner, whose department was paid $3.6 million by the town of Hilton Head to police the island this year, took issue with many of the findings of the new audit, conducted by the Public Safety Strategies Group.

“You’ve been here three times and you don’t understand what Hilton Head is,” Tanner said to PSSG director Kym Craven, during Tuesday’s meeting of the town’s Intergovernmental and Public Safety committee. PSSG, a Massachusetts-based firm, was paid $25,700 by the town to conduct the review.

Among PSSG’s findings, which were presented to the committee:

  • The sheriff’s office is not doing enough to reduce the “significant” number of car crashes on the island. Instead, too much police time is spent responding to 911 hangups and alarm calls.
  • In some cases, the sheriff’s office may not be providing all of the personnel agreed upon in its contract with the town. But that level of staffing is likely excessive, the audit concluded.
  • A disconnect exists between the policing expectations of town residents and what the sheriff’s office provides. For example, Native Islanders interviewed for the audit said their neighborhoods lack police patrols. And other community members said sheriff’s office does not focus on certain community problems, such as the opioid epidemic and transient populations.

Craven suggested during Tuesday’s meeting that Tanner engage more with the community.

“This might not be comfortable for you. But, sheriff, I’d love to see you at a trunk or treat, giving out candy to little kids and doing a contest on who wants to be a police officer,” Craven said.

“You didn’t see me this past (Halloween)?” Tanner responded.

“I didn’t. Were you the devil?” Craven asked.

“I went as the Invisible Man — I can’t believe you didn’t see me,” Tanner said. “ ... I’ll tell you, next Halloween, I won’t be the Invisible Man. I’ll be like a consultant or something.”

It wasn’t the first time Craven has taken a shot at Tanner and his agency. In the audit, Craven wrote that Tanner monopolized a meeting while she attempted to conduct interviews and that the BCSO was uncooperative, failing to provide requested data.

At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Bill Harkins, the committee chairman, asked everyone to “tone it down” and be “civil.”

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BCSO disputes many of the audit’s findings. Lt. Col. Allen Horton wrote a letter to the town noting many factual inaccuracies and misconstrued data — specifically about crash data that didn’t add up — presented in the report.

Tuesday, Craven disputed the sheriff’s office’s claim that crash data was inflated.

“It was stated in the media by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s department that we falsely inflated numbers. I take umbrage to that, and I would show anyone here the sheet,” Craven said, noting some hit-and-run accidents were not included in the accident database that were present in the calls for service database.

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Craven said she requested to have ride-alongs with deputies in order to learn more about the community, but that request was denied by the sheriff.

Tanner said he denied it because he didn’t want to “assume the liability.”

Other topics discussed were whether it was clear who was in charge of patrol units and whether the sheriff’s office needs to use a specific data-driven approach to crime and traffic.

Craven said the information she received was not always clear as to who was in charge, while the sheriff’s office said it was. The sheriff also said strictly using a data-driven approach takes away from the “intuitive nature and personal experience” of policing. Craven said it does not.

Harkins said moving forward, it would be helpful to hear from both parties on which parts of the audit they agree on, where more clarity is needed and where disagreements exist.

“This dialogue is good,” Harkins said. “I truly believe if this dialogue continues, we can go from a draft to a final (version of the audit).”

Harkins also told the committee the town received an updated version of the draft Tuesday.

Craven said that final draft would be based on what changes the town wants to the draft it received.

She said during the meeting she will work through assistant town manager Josh Gruber going forward.

“I don’t want to go back and forth,” Craven said to the committee. “I don’t want the hot-headed conversations to overshadow the good that can come of this (audit).”

No time table has been set on when the audit will go before Town Council, which has the final say about the town’s contract with the sheriff’s office.

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