Crime & Public Safety

Hilton Head security guards armed but rarely fire, say plantation officials

An armed security officer waves a vehicle through the Greenwood gate into Sea Pines on Oct. 21, 2015.
An armed security officer waves a vehicle through the Greenwood gate into Sea Pines on Oct. 21, 2015. jkarr@islandpacket.com

After two Hilton Head security guards accidentally fired their guns this year -- the most recent incident occurring Oct. 14 when a guard shot himself in the foot -- other island gated communities say their guards are also armed, but rarely fire their weapons.

They say the guns are needed for the safety of officers, who are often first-responders to crime scenes in the gated communities.

A Palmetto Dunes security guard accidentally shot himself this month while trying to demonstrate firearms safety to another security officer, according to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report. That followed an incident Feb. 20 when a Palmetto Dunes guard accidentally fired her weapon while taking it apart to clean it. The bullet entered a file cabinet; no one was injured, a sheriff's report said.

Other large gated communities on the island also have armed guards, including Port Royal Plantation, Hilton Head Plantation and Sea Pines.

Plantation officials and the Sheriff's Office say the guards need to be armed, but that they rarely use their weapons.

"It is very rare, but there have been instances where if security officers come upon a situation where someone is put in harm's way and they have a weapon, they will draw their weapon," Hilton Head Plantation general manager Peter Kristian said.

Sheriff P.J. Tanner said security guards must meet state requirements to possess a firearm and are an extension of local law enforcement.

"They have the authority to make an arrest and issue traffic tickets on the property they protect," Tanner said. "In my opinion, they should be armed as any other law enforcement officer."

Kristian could not recall the last time one of the plantation's security officers fired a weapon near a person, but said they have had to kill rabid animals.

Kristian said security officers use their weapons more as deterrents against crime and for the officers' own protection.

"We would not have our officers do what they do if they were not armed," Kristian said.

Security officers often respond to domestic-violence calls and conduct traffic stops, which are two of the most dangerous situations for law enforcement, according to Capt. Bob Bromage of the Sheriff's Office.

"They are an effective extension of law enforcement in Beaufort County," Bromage said. "If we do have a crime scene inside a plantation, they help us set up perimeters."

Port Royal Plantation general manager Lance Pyle said the gated community's guards have only fired weapons during training.

Several attempts Wednesday to contact Sea Pines administration were unsuccessful.

Tanner said the Sheriff's Office communicates with security departments on a regular basis to notify them of emergency calls and to respond to calls for further investigation.

"They can make DUI and criminal arrests," Tanner said. "Any other crime that doesn't happen in their presence, we investigate and follow up with."

Palmetto Dunes Chief of Security Jim Griner said Wednesday that both guards who accidentally fired their weapons are still employed by Palmetto Dunes. He said he could not comment on personnel matters when asked if the security officers who accidentally fired their weapons had been disciplined.

He did say that after the guard shot himself in the foot, additional training will be required of all Palmetto Dunes security officers, and there will be changes to its weapons safety policies.

Griner said he could not recall any incidents in his six years with the security department in which a guard pulled a gun in an emergency.

However, Griner said being armed is necessary because security guards perform many of the same duties as regular law enforcement.

"It would be difficult and really not safe to provide law enforcement services without the protection of firearms," Griner said.

Follow Caitlin Turner on Twitter at twitter.com/Cait_E_Turner.

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