3 SC officers killed in crashes in a month; vehicle incidents are leading cause of death

Around the South

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — Horry County’s first officer death of 2021 happened in the early hours of New Year’s Day. 

North Myrtle Beach Department’s Sgt. Gordon William Best was en route to a call when his vehicle slid on Highway 17’s wet roadway and hit a utility pole. 

A week later, Marion County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jonathan David Price would be killed in a two-vehicle crash that also took the life of the other driver.

And then within a few days, Horry County Police Department Officer Melton “Fox” Gore would be killed on Jan. 12 after being struck with a vehicle while clearing debris.

One person was killed in 2020 as the result of a crash with a vehicle identified as “police” use, according to data from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. There were no fatal crashes the previous year.

In Horry County, at least 53 people have been injured in the 105 total collisions involving police vehicles throughout 2019 and 2020, according to the data. The 2020 numbers have the potential to be higher, since crash investigations can take months to complete.

Police officers face additional behavior-related hazards when driving, including not wearing a seatbelt, speeding through intersections, being distracted by their technology and experiencing tunnel vision from increased stress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vehicle-related incidents, which include both crashes and when officers are hit by a vehicle while they’re pedestrians, are the leading cause of death for law enforcement.

Crash trends

Of the 105 collisions involving police vehicles in Horry County in 2019 and 2020, 36 of the crashes caused injuries, injuring a total of 53 people, and 68 of the crashes caused property damage only, according to data from SCDPS.

Of the collisions, 85 happened when the weather was clear, 12 happened when it was cloudy and eight happened when it was raining. Ten of the collisions happened when the vehicle was parked, 49 happened while it was moving and 29 happened while it was stopped.

During the same time period, there were 88 police vehicle-involved collisions in Florence County, which included 67 that caused property damage only and 21 that led to injuries, injuring a total of 31 people. None of the collisions led to a fatality.

Florence County’s trends mirrored Horry County’s, with the majority happening when the weather was clear.

News13 filed a Freedom of Information request with the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles for crash reports for the collisions that happened in 2019 and 2020 in order to view more details about the crashes, including which type of vehicles were involved and how much damage was done. The agency told News13 it would need to pay $1,158 to obtain the records, and denied a request for the fees to be partially or fully waived, citing that News13 was a private entity.

Safety efforts

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Horry County Police Department did not respond to News13’s requests for comment about if the departments had undergone any additional training in response to the deaths. 

In March, an additional Horry County Police Department officer received “life-altering” injuries in a crash.

Patrick Dowling, the public information officer for the City of North Myrtle Beach, said the city’s officers receive annual, mandatory emergency vehicle operation training. It has not done extra training as a result of Best’s Jan. 1 death.

News13 also reached out to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy about if local officers have been referred for misconduct involving vehicle use, and did not receive a response. Officers can be referred to the academy for “dangerous or unsafe practices” involving vehicles “which indicate either a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”

Police officers receive initial vehicle training while they’re attending the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. 

Students come in with different skill levels and their ages vary, according to John McMahan, the academy’s range unit supervisor. 

Officers are trained on Ford Crown Victorias — a sedan that hasn’t been manufactured since 2011. Once employed, departments may assign officers to other types of vehicles, including a pickup truck or an SUV.

Officers undergo a basic precision driving training at the academy. It is not a defensive driving class.

“We try to give them the basic hands-on skills as far as proper steering technique, proper breaking technique,” McMahan said. “It is real basic stuff. We don’t do what you see on tv where they are doing a 100 mile per hour pursuit or a 40 mile per hour PIT [pursuit intervention technique] maneuver on somebody.”

After that, McMahan said it’s up to individual law enforcement agencies to handle vehicle maintenance, preparedness and further training.

In order to pass the academy’s class, officers have to drive through 1.6 miles of track while performing maneuvers exercises like three point turns, steering and lane changes — all without knocking over any of the course’s 600 cones. They must also complete the course within four to four-and-a-half minutes.

“If you’re quicker than four minutes, there is somewhere there where you aren’t observing the stop signs,” McMahan said. 

Longer than four-and-a-half minutes, and officers are driving too slow to respond to a call.

McMahan said the class is important because driving and using a weapon are the situations where an officer is most likely to get injured.

“That’s the biggest thing they are going to be doing every day, which is driving,” McMahan said.

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