Grand Strand sees spate of law enforcement officers in trouble
  Area prosecutions beat the national average
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  Tonya Root reporting        No. of views: 13300
  A circuit court judge's recent order that two former Horry County police officers pay restitution to the county or face 30 days in jail is the latest development in a series of law enforcement-involved criminal cases during the past 15 months.

Those arrested

On Feb. 23, Harris and Rexroad pleaded guilty to obtaining goods by false pretenses, less than $1,000, as part of a plea agreement, and entered into binding agreements to relinquish their law enforcement certification and the ability to regain that certification for a 25-year period within the United States, according to the 15th Circuit Solicitor's office. Both men declined legal representation and represented themselves, accepting their guilt.

Their arrests occurred after authorities received information that the officers had received pay for working a special assignment in the Prestwick community but had not actually reported to duty, Horry County officials have said.

In January 2010, former Horry County officer Nickolas Petrone and former Conway police officer Jeffrey Gore were each charged with criminal domestic violence in separate incidents. Charges are pending.

Petrone was arrested after being accused of firing a shot during an argument with his wife, while Gore was arrested after his former girlfriend reported being assaulted during a confrontation with another woman at Gore's home, according to separate police reports.

In July, former Myrtle Beach police officer Adam David Marks was charged with criminal domestic violence following an argument with his wife at their home. In September, charges against Marks were dismissed because of issues with evidence including a witness statement and cooperation, authorities said.

Also in July, Horry County police arrested Bobby Lee Spurgeon, who was a lance corporal with the S.C. Highway Patrol, on felony drug charges. Spurgeon was arrested again in December on an intimidation charge. Spurgeon was fired from his position, according to officials with the state Department of Public Safety. Charges are pending.

In September, Travis Preston, a former Myrtle Beach police officer, was charged with driving under the influence after authorities said he crashed into a Conway church. Charges are pending.

In January, two Horry County police officers were arrested on unrelated charges. On Jan. 16, John William Parker was charged with DUI and later resigned from his position with the department. Charges are pending.

On Jan. 24, John David Gonska was charged with criminal domestic violence following an argument with a woman about Super Bowl plans, according to authorities. Charges were dismissed against Gonska.

On Feb. 21, Robert "Bo" Bryan, an attorney with the 15th Circuit Solicitor's Office, was arrested by the troopers for DUI and open container of beer or wine in a motor vehicle, records showed. Charges are pending.
Eight incidents involving the arrests of Grand Strand police officers have occurred since the Horry County officers were charged with taking money for special assignment shifts they didn't work. The arrests included officers from four area police departments for misconduct charges while they were off duty, such as driving under the influence, criminal domestic violence and drug possession.

The arrests mirror problems that often occur in the police community nationwide, according to David Packman, founder of the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project, which utilizes media reports about police misconduct to develop statistical data about police misconduct in the U.S. and Canada.

Packman also said the prosecutions of officers in the Grand Strand area are significantly higher than the national average, indicating that local law enforcement are policing themselves as well as the community.

"Generally, people do have to expect that there will always be some amount of police misconduct no matter how agencies attempt to control it," Packman said. "Given this realistic expectation, it seems that the most effective way of dealing with misconduct is to be transparent about it when it happens and treat officers accused of criminal offenses just as you would treat any other person accused of a crime."

Former Horry County officers Wesley Gordon Harris and David Rexroad pleaded guilty Feb. 23 to obtaining goods by false pretenses, less than $1,000. They reached plea agreements last month to admit their guilt, pay a fine and relinquish their law enforcement certification and the ability to regain that certification for a 25-year period within the United States, according to the 15th Circuit Solicitor's office. Both men declined legal representation and represented themselves.

Their arrests were followed by arrests involving state troopers; officers from Conway and Myrtle Beach police departments; and one prosecutor from the 15th Circuit Solicitor's office.

"It's devastating to a department as a whole, not only to the officer, but other officers," said Horry County Police Chief Johnny Morgan. "They're human and they make mistakes, but we have to work hard to earn the community trust and respect."

Experts agree there are numerous reasons that can lead to police misconduct, but they say there is no easy remedy when problems persist in a community.

"When officers abuse their position, much less find themselves on the other side of the law, the community places every officer under a critical microscope," said Steven C. Millwee, a security management expert, former FBI agent and homicide detective in the Hillsborough County, Fla., Sheriff's Office.

"Active investigations and respect for officers in routine interaction with the public are damaged by the actions of a very small percentage of bad officers. It takes years to develop the trust of your community, and a second to destroy that trust by a corrupt or dishonest officer."

Packman, who analyzed arrests in the area, said they were "a little less than twice the national rate," and prosecution of the officers is "significantly higher than the national average."

Greg Hembree, the 15th Circuit Solicitor for Horry and Georgetown counties, said the law of averages may apply in the cases because of the number of public safety officials.

Between the Horry County and Myrtle Beach police departments there are more than 400 sworn police officers serving the community.

"There is no catch-all solution to misconduct, just like there really isn't any single cause for it," Packman said.

The arrests of area police officers are not any higher than of any other community in the country, but like any other resident they do make mistakes, Morgan said.

"For every officer arrested, there is an officer arresting them," Morgan said. "It is very hard on [an] officer doing his job. ... We make the charges and forward the case to the solicitor's office for prosecution."

The county's more than 200 police officers are constantly reviewing policies and procedures of the department as well as state and local laws. But when misconduct occurs, Morgan said Sgt. Robert Kegler is tasked with informing the department and media about the incident to keep rumors at a minimum.

"We are not tolerating it [misconduct], not sweeping it under the rug," Kegler said. "We are taking control and not tolerating it when it occurs."

An internal investigation is conducted no matter how minor or serious the incident, Morgan said. But if the incident is an officer-involved shooting, another department - such as the State Law Enforcement Division - will investigate the incident.

"Our officers are all professionals and they're doing the job they were hired to do," Morgan said. "We are here for the community, to protect them and serve their interest."

Hembree dealt with one of the arrests last month when an attorney in his office resigned after being charged with DUI and having an open container in his vehicle.

"I don't think it's a trend or anything. It's more of bad luck than anything else," Hembree said. "Police and law enforcement are held to a higher standard, like the lawyers in my office, and I'm held to a higher standard. They've given us this authority and we have to live up to it. That being said, people still make mistakes. We are human."

Packman said, "When officers know that they will face public accountability for misconduct it acts as a deterrent just as the fear of prosecution acts as a deterrent for the rest of us."

In his analysis, Packman said the majority of arrests were related to domestic violence, which often carries higher prosecution rates.

"So, the higher ratio of domestic violence allegations may account for the higher than normal criminal charge rate for Horry County agencies," he said.

Any allegation of domestic violence is troubling, but when it involves a law enforcement officer it is even more bothersome to Vicki Bourus, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

"It's not unusual. It's unfortunately not rare," said Bourus, who noted 22 to 24 percent of domestic violence offenders are police officers. "It presents the victim with an incredibly complex and unfortunate situation in solving it. Officers work together and they're bonded. There's sometimes a tendency to want to protect that person; it's a brotherhood."

South Carolina law enforcement experts at the University of South Carolina, Myrtle Beach Police Chief Warren Gall and a couple of other organizations declined to comment on the arrests.
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