Myrtle Vice?

How could Myrtle Beach be more dangerous than Chicago, D.C. and Atlanta?

For Weekly SurgeJanuary 23, 2013 

For long-time residents of the Grand Strand, the notion that Myrtle Beach is any more dangerous than other places in South Carolina is, well, laughable. So, when NeighborhoodScout.com recently listed Myrtle Beach at No. 21 on its list of the Top-100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S., it was a bit shocking to many locals.

Has Myrtle Beach really descended into some sort of lawless, dystopian society where criminals roam Ocean Boulevard like bands of wild savages? Has The Palace Theatre been converted into a Thunderdome? Can you get an “I survived Myrtle Beach and all I got was this lousy gunshot wound” T-shirt?

It seems that crime is not a topic officials in Myrtle Beach like discussing. Every murder, rape, B&E (breaking and entering), and car theft is yet another blemish on an already unsavory reputation of teenage hooliganism, binge drinking, and a plethora of adult entertainment clubs. The last thing they want is “Durty Myrtle” becoming “Murder Beach.” As catchy as it may be, the moniker doesn’t really play well to the “family beach” brand the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce has worked so hard to craft.

As much as nobody seemingly wants to directly discuss “the issue that shall not be named,” it doesn’t make crime any less real. Yes, crime may hide in the dark corners where neon lights of beachwear shops fade into the shadows, but it’s still there. Waiting. Lurking. Plotting.

From 2001 to 2010, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reports that violent crime was down 14.3 percent in South Carolina, and has been on a steep decline since 1994. However, South Carolina’s violent crime has been dramatically higher than the national average since 1975.

But during the last decade, crime trends in Myrtle Beach have been an absolute rollercoaster. In 2011, there were 4,190 incidents of property crime, which includes larceny, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Since 2009, property crimes increased by nearly 5 percent, but are down drastically compared to 2004, when 5,539 incidents of property crime were reported. Also in 2011, there were 389 incidents of violent crime, which includes four murders, 35 rapes, 163 robberies, and 187 aggravated assaults. Like property crime, violent crime is also up slightly since 2009.

As one might suspect, crime maps provided by the city of Myrtle Beach’s Police to Citizen (P2C) portal show the highest concentration of crime along Ocean Boulevard, particularly between 10th Avenue North and 17th Avenue South. Here, among Myrtle Beach’s older district of hotels, motels, and residential properties, crimes run the gamut. Fueled by a high concentration of bars, pedestrian traffic, tourists, transients, residents, and no shortage of dark alleys and side streets, if there is a “hot spot” of criminal activity in Myrtle Beach, this is it.

So, Like, Am I Going to Die in Myrtle Beach?

The short answer is, yes. You are going to die. It’s the circle of life. But, will you die as a result of criminal activity in Myrtle Beach? Well, that all depends.

If you’re looking at the recent “Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S.” report released by NeighborhoodScout.com where Myrtle Beach is ranked No. 21 on the list, it’s easy to believe that a trip here may be like vacationing in a warzone. According to the report, NeighborhoodScout.com collects violent crime data from all 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the nation, including homicide, forcible rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault. It then assigns this data to the city in which it was reported, and determines a per capita crime rate based on incidents per 1,000 permanent residents.

According to this report, Myrtle Beach has a violent crime rate of 15.92 incidents per 1,000 people, suggesting that individuals have a one in 63 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime. The report claims Myrtle Beach is more dangerous than much larger cities such as Atlanta (No. 26), Baltimore (No. 27), Washington, D.C. (No. 46), and Chicago (No. 79) – the latter of which hit an alarming 500 murders in 2012.

The astounding ranking leaves Myrtle Beach spokesperson Mark Kruea questioning the results. “This is something that comes up every year,” says Kruea. “It’s a case of people using statistics incorrectly.” Kruea doesn’t dispute the reported number of crimes, just how the city’s per capita number crime rate is calculated. “Those numbers – those statistics – are based on our permanent population,” says Kruea, referring to Myrtle Beach’s permanent population of nearly 28,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. “At any point in time between May and September, we may have 250,000 people in town. Literally 10-fold greater (than the year-round population).”

Kruea points out that tourism inevitably brings with it more incidents of crime, and because tourism isn’t factored into per capita calculations, it further biases crime stats against Myrtle Beach. “That’s where those statistics get misaligned, and misrepresented,” he adds.

Robert Jenkot, assistant professor in criminology and sociology at Coastal Carolina University, agrees tourism is a factor that skews Myrtle Beach’s crime stats. “Counting can be part of the problem. We do have a large tourist population and if you have a different license plate, that makes you a target. You have cameras. You have money. You have things. So a number of these [crimes] could well be tourist-oriented crimes although these are still a robbery.”

However, Andrew Schiller, CEO of Location, Inc., the location-based data company behind the NeighborhoodScout.com, disagrees.

“There are hundreds of cities in the United States that are major tourist destinations,” says Schiller. “And while often times visitors who come to a city can perpetrate crimes or have crimes perpetrated on them – that aren’t counted in the population – we do see a distinct pattern in that many of these cities, which are significant tourist locations, do not come up on our list of 100 most dangerous cities in America.”

Schiller raises a good point. For example, Charleston, a major tourist destination less than two hours south of Myrtle Beach, didn’t make the list. And, compared to the city of Charleston, Myrtle Beach is like the Wild West. According to crime data published by the cities of Charleston and Myrtle Beach, 2011 crime rates were higher for Myrtle Beach across the board. Violent crime rates were 4.4 higher here than in Charleston, and property crime rates were nearly five times higher.

But, even this comparison has its limitations.

We’re Just…Different

While Charleston may be a tourist destination like Myrtle Beach, there are still numerous variables that make the two cities very distinct, and these variables also have an impact on crime. “It’s a different vibe,” says Jenkot. “Here, we’re concentrated on the beach. Charleston doesn’t have a beach, per se. And you get down to the beach, and you have fun, letting loose, perhaps, in a different way than if you’re walking down the street in Charleston."

Also, Myrtle Beach is much more of a family destination than Charleston. As such, keeping up with kids in a new place can be distracting, which causes tourists to let their guard down, making them more vulnerable to principles. Dan Wysong, Chair of Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s Public Service and Legal Studies Department, calls this part of the theory of “Routine Activities.”

“It’s a situation where you have people who are vulnerable -- that are open to victimization because they’re unsure of the area, they’re in the wrong place, or taking the wrong turn, or whatever it might be – and there are people who are waiting for these individuals to prey upon them,” says Wysong. “The two present a situation where you are going to have a high possibility of crime.”

“We have people here that are waiting for the opportunity and they’re preying upon the individuals who are coming here to visit,” Wysong adds. “So, because of what we call the routine activities theory, the opportunity has a lot to do with the amount of crime.”

Differences in land-use and planning also play a major role in the crime rates of both Charleston and Myrtle Beach. During the last few decades, Charleston experienced a wave of gentrification that transformed the downtown area into a heavily commercial and tourism district. With property values on the rise, it pushed affordable housing outside the city limits into North Charleston and surrounding islands. As a result, the demographics of the city’s population shifted, and more upper level professionals moved downtown. This had a significant impact on the city. Gentrification impacted “everything from the type of employment to the level of income, to any number of factors that you can think about, which can change the crime rate,” says Wysong.

Unlike Charleston, Myrtle Beach has yet to undergo a similar transition. While skyscraping resorts now dot the horizon, Myrtle Beach’s waterfront is still a mixture of hotels, motels and residential properties in a fairly concentrated area. Myrtle Beach’s older motels, which are home to many of the area’s transient population, add another variable to Myrtle Beach’s crime culture that differs from other resort towns such as Charleston.

Boulevard of Broken Windows

It would be wrong to suggest that Myrtle Beach’s transient population is the main source of crime simply from unfortunate socioeconomic circumstance. However, the inherent nature of the transient condition, living out of rooms rented weekly, plays into a criminological theory called the “Broken Window Hypothesis.”

“[The Broken Window Hypothesis] talks about the fact that if you have a neighborhood and you let it go, such as a broken window, then people become less likely to invest in the neighborhood,” explains Wysong. As such, “people are less likely to contribute to the neighborhood, and the activities of the individuals in the neighborhood begin to deteriorate, and the neighborhood begins to deteriorate as a result, and that presents the possibility for more criminal activities.”

While budget hotels may not have broken windows, the sense of community and communal responsibility in traditional neighborhoods is lacking in a place where you can pick up and move your family in a matter of a week. And, while these transient individuals may not necessarily be committing crimes, they are less likely to report them. This creates an environment where the risk of criminal activity is diminished, creating more opportunities for crime, especially vice crime like drugs and prostitution.

People also come to Myrtle Beach for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Some people are looking for better economic opportunities than where they left, and others are outrunning legal problems that unfortunately may follow them here. Regardless of their motivations, budget motels are an affordable and flexible option for them while they are transitioning into the area. These motels are also appealing to high-risk tourists such as teens and young adults, who are unable to afford rooms at more expensive resorts. This group is not only at a greater level of risk for alcohol and drug violations, but also as targets for criminals.

Street Smarts

Sergeant Robert Swanson is a 13-year veteran of the Myrtle Beach Police Department. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in accounting, and completing law school, Swanson worked for the federal government, and even had an opportunity to pursue a career in federal law enforcement. He opted instead to come to the Myrtle Beach area and work locally within the community – something he says is key to effective policing.

Swanson said being a positive force in the community helps change the perspective many people have of police officers. And, as more people trust the police and understand what they do, it makes preventing crime easier. It’s this reason why the Myrtle Beach Police Department puts an emphasis on community outreach, instituting programs such as the Citizens Police Academy.

The Citizens Police Academy began in 2000, and in the last 13 years, hundreds of Myrtle Beach residents have taken the 10-week course that is designed to expose residents to the job of its community’s police officers. The Academy covers topics such as crime scene investigation, defensive driving, gun safety, domestic violence and crime prevention.

While the police do as much as they can to prevent crime, they are still a reactionary organization. It is next to impossible for police to prevent individual acts of crime against a person. According to MBPD Public Information Officer Capt. David Knipes, the average response time in 2012 was 5 minutes and 41 seconds. That means for almost six minutes, you are on your own when a crime happens to you.

“Police do a great job with the resources they have, but when seconds count they’re only minutes away,” says Will Abbott, owner of Coastal Sports and Range in Murrells Inlet. Abbott says that the number of people getting their concealed weapon permits (CWP) is on the rise, especially since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A CWP allows licensed residents to legally carry a concealed weapon in public for self-defense purposes. As of 2010, 119,340 South Carolina residents had an active CWP.

In order to obtain a CWP, one must be a resident of South Carolina, aged 21-years or older, and have a clean criminal background. After an eight-hour class, applicants must pass a 50-shot qualification with a score of at least 70 percent, as well as pass a 50-question written exam on material taught during the class.

Abbott’s advice for novice shooters is to go to a shooting range, tell them you’re a new shooter, and ask for help. "Here at Coastal Sports, every time a new shooter comes in, or any time any shooter comes in, a range officer-slash-instructor is always over your shoulder," helping new shooters with proper shooting pointers, as well as maintaining safety on the range.

As for home defense, Abbott says his preference is a handgun by the bed, secured against unauthorized use, as well as a short-barreled shotgun for backup. While the type of handgun is up to the individual owner, Abbott prefers a revolver because of its simplicity, which makes it easier to use if just waking up from sleeping. He also says night sights, which stay illuminated in low light, are a good idea since according to the Department of Justice, 80 percent of self-defense shootings occur in the dark.

Of course, the best defense against crime is common sense, and avoiding situations in which you become a victim. “Be smart and know your surroundings,” says MBDP Chief Warren Gall. “Don’t place yourselves or your valuables [or] property in jeopardy by being careless. Do not leave valuables in your car. Do not engage in illegal activities.”

“All these contribute to the ease at which some of our visitors and residents become victims,” says Gall.

Is Our Street Cred Legit?

Mike Mullinix’s family has owned the Cash Grocery store on 6th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach for nearly 50 years. He has seen Myrtle Beach change from a sleepy coastal town into a booming resort area. “This area was Myrtle Beach 20 years ago,” says Mullinix. “Now, this is the older part of town.”

As far as crime, Mullinix says he hears of it all the time, but never sees it. He blames the bad economy, pointing out the development projects surrounding his store that have been put on hold until economic conditions improve. “It’s gotten worse, but times have gotten worse,” says Mullinix. “The economy has a lot to do with it. Now [people are] not working and roaming the streets.” But, he says as the economy rebounds, crime will stabilize. And, he’s optimistic that better times are ahead for the area.

Mullinix, and other longtime residents and business owners aren’t concerned about what they see around them. To them, it’s nothing new. They say while things may have gotten worse in the last few years, reports suggesting Myrtle Beach is any more dangerous than when they first established families and businesses are designed for media hype.

The truth about crime in the city of Myrtle Beach is that numbers don’t lie, but neither do they tell the whole story. There are far too many other variables at play, which aren’t reflected in black and white stat sheets. It may sound like a copout answer to suggest that the crime problem is far too complex to address with superficial studies such as NeighborhoodScout.com’s report, or simplistic excuses about tourists inflating crime stats – but that’s the reality. As Wysong said, there is no “magic bullet” in explaining criminology.

However, this doesn’t mean that community leaders can simply walk away from the city’s crime stats, viewing it as a non-issue. Dismissing Myrtle Beach’s crime rates is just as disingenuous as trying to characterize an entire city based on a single measurement. Myrtle Beach is far from dangerous, but that doesn’t mean crime levels in Myrtle Beach aren’t high -- unacceptably high -- regardless of the statistical bias inherent in per capita measurements of resort towns.

In spite of the numerous variables behind the city’s crime rates, steps can be taken to prevent criminal activity in the area. These actions start with a public policy conversation about Myrtle Beach crime, not excuses that merely seek to diminish crime hype. And, this conversation should include officials from City Hall, members of the law enforcement community, business owners, real estate developers, the Chamber of Commerce, and experts in criminology and sociology.

Just because the city is “safe” doesn’t mean that crime shouldn’t be aggressively pursued. Being passive about crime, thinking the city is merely a victim of statistical flaws, doesn’t benefit anyone. The goal should be getting Myrtle Beach off lists ranking it as one of the most dangerous cities in America; not ignoring them as they come out annually – which seems to be the prevailing strategy.

When the city is producing crime stats comparable to other tourist destinations four times its size, it’s time to figure out why that is the case. What these solutions are is a subject fit for a research paper rather than a newspaper article, but surely there are answers beyond sitting back and taking crime as it comes. Myrtle Beach crime may not be a problem the community can solve overnight, but we should start sooner, rather than later.

When referring to Myrtle Beach, people rarely mean the specific city of Myrtle Beach, within the municipality’s legal borders. It could mean as far north as North Myrtle Beach, and down south as far as Murrells Inlet. It could also mean out to Carolina Forest, and beyond. It is absurd to think that the crime issues affecting just few square miles of Myrtle Beach are somehow representative of the entire Grand Strand.

Approximately 14 million people travel to the Grand Strand every year, and just a few end up victims of crimes. If the average Myrtle Beach population is approximately 250,000 at any given time during the summer, when crime is at its peak, the likelihood of being a victim of a violent crime is about one in 650. It’s even less if tourists avoid high crime areas. This is far different reality than NeighborhoodScout.com’s crime assessment.

Does the city of Myrtle Beach have one the highest crime rates in the nation, based on the methodology used for the NeighborhoodScout.com report? Yes. Does this mean that the city of Myrtle Beach is the 21st most dangerous city in the nation? No.

Myrtle Beach is in a constant state of motion. Populations shift. The local economy rises, falls, and rises again. Even the landscape of Ocean Boulevard reshapes as old businesses close down, and new ones open. Every one of these changes impacts crime. The only constant in this never-ending cycle of energy is how far a little “stranger danger” common sense will go to keeping people safe and sound.

Plus, location has little to do with victimization. According to data provided by SLED, most murders are committed by acquaintances of the victim. You’re actually three times more likely to be killed by an acquaintance than you are a complete stranger. The same goes for rape. Additionally, most robberies in South Carolina occur in residences, followed closely by highways. In 2010, parking lot robberies constituted only 10.7 percent of all robberies.

So, Instead of closely watching overhyped crime reports, we’re much safer keeping an eye on those we know.

Still, there is no reason to sound the alarms and start forming vigilante groups. “I think that the crime rate is not something to necessarily be afraid of,” says Jenkot. “Generally the crime is going to be concentrated in certain areas," meaning while one part of a city may suffer from higher crime rates, it’s not indicative of a citywide crime epidemic.

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