An unnamed Horry County police officer killed a beachgoer with a truck. Why the secrecy? | Opinion

Officers sworn to protect and serve the public know they have one of the hardest jobs in the country, in large part because they are a split-second mistake away from the unimaginable: someone’s death. When that happens, honesty and transparency are the only path forward for any law enforcement agency, especially in this era of simmering distrust between police and some members of the public.

That’s what makes a tragic fatality outside Myrtle Beach on Thursday beyond troubling.

A Horry County police officer drove his patrol vehicle over a beachgoer by the Nash Street beach access near Springmaid Pier just after 1 p.m. On Friday Horry County Police released a statement saying the officer had been placed on administrative leave but shared little else. The woman, who died at Grand Strand Medical Center, was later identified as Sandra “Sandy” Schultz-Peters, 66, of Myrtle Beach. The Horry County Coroner’s Office said she died of injuries sustained upon being struck by a vehicle while on the beach.

A Facebook user shared two photos of the aftermath of the collision and wrote, “A beach cop just ran over a woman in her beach chair right behind me. Omg the scream.” Another person who was on the beach at the time of the accident told the Sun News’ Terri Richardson by email that a group of people rushed to help the woman and were able to lift the truck off of her. But it was too late.

The tragedy carries sad echoes of a tragedy in Columbia two months ago when city police officer Darian Davis drove his cruiser into a sedan driven by 34-year-old Ashley Brown while he was responding to a shooting at a car dealership. Horrifically, Brown was 27-28 months pregnant and the fetus died, too. It was a day before what would have been her 35th birthday, five days before a planned baby shower. We know this because the day after this terrible crash, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook shared the deadly timeline in painful detail and showed concern for Brown’s family verbally instead of sending an emailed response that fell woefully short.

Which again brings us to why the fatality outside Myrtle Beach is beyond troubling.

Authorities with the Horry County Police Department and the South Carolina Highway Patrol say they are investigating, but both are refusing to name the officer involved — even though that information is not protected under the state’s Freedom of Information Act because it won’t jeopardize the investigation and because there is ample history of agencies releasing such information within 24 hours of a tragedy, as just happened two months ago in Columbia.

Chief Holbrook showed how and why an agency can release the involved officer’s name and detail what happened before any investigation by the SCHP is completed.

Compare that with what is happening in Horry County, where Richardson requested the incident report for the beach crash and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety emailed back, saying it has 30 days to reply by law and seeking her consent for an extension to release it after that 30 day window “because it would interfere with a prospective law enforcement proceeding.”

That’s not what Holbrook did when his department faced anger and questions over his officer’s collision with an unsuspecting woman.

Without such openness and transparency from law enforcement agencies, community trust can and should erode quickly.

Here is the statement Horry County Government Director of Public Information Mikayla Moskov sent to the media from HCPD leadership in its entirety:

“What occurred on the beach yesterday was a tragedy and we know our community is hurting. Our hearts are with all those impacted by this loss.

“We also know our community has questions. We do too.

“We have a responsibility to ensure the investigations — both external and internal — occur without delay or interference. Horry County Police Department is providing any access and information that South Carolina Highway Patrol may require to complete their investigation.

“At this time, the officer involved is on administrative leave.

“We stand ready to provide what support we can to our community and the family experiencing this tragic loss.”

But do they? Actions speak louder than words, and they haven’t even released the name of the officer.

Compare that statement with what Holbrook said at a news conference a day after the horrific crash in Columbia, which also became the subject of a South Carolina Highway Patrol investigation: “I’m really at a loss of what I could even begin to say to the family of Ms. Brown. We strive for perfection and we train for perfection in an imperfect world. I know what these officers go through every day in service to their community. I know the work they do to save lives. I know the value they put on the sanctity of life, and I can tell you that there is never a time that we would ever invoke an ill intent to harm somebody. It’s just a tragic situation.”

There is no perfect way to respond in a crisis like this. But Horry County Police aren’t even coming close to how Holbrook handled it.