At 12:30 a.m. on Wed., June 6, Folly resident Leshall Conklin left her house on Third Street to ride her bike to Bert’s Market. At the corner of Second and East Ashley, a policeman turned on his lights and signaled her to stop. Claiming that she’d been swerving, Conklin says he demanded she breathe in his face. She questioned the request and says she asked for a Breathalyzer.
After an unsuccessful search of his car for that equipment, Charleston County Deputy Sheriff Shawn James informed Conklin that bicyclists and pedestrians don’t require a Breathalyzer and began reading her her rights. Dressed in her bathing suit, skirt, and flip-flops, Conklin was taken to the county jail in North Charleston for drunkenness, despite never being given a Breathalyzer or field sobriety test. Her bail hearing was set for 4 p.m. the next afternoon, where she was released on a personal recognizance bond. Just after midnight that evening, after being locked up for 24 hours, Conklin was released.
Conklin is just one of many young Folly Beach residents who have faced arrest under seemingly questionable circumstances in recent months. Eric Kovach, who works at Rip Tide Jet Ski Rentals, was walking to Bert’s Market around 4 a.m. on April 20 after a night out. Earlier in the evening, he’d witnessed a county cop approaching people seated on park benches outside the Sand Dollar Bar and demanding to see IDs. He called in a complaint about the cop’s actions, which he considered inappropriate. “I don’t see how it’s right to stop me when I’m not bothering anybody and take 15 minutes out of my time to find out if I’m a wanted person or not,” says Kovach.
Outside Bert’s, Kovach walked into the road to avoid a puddle beside the building. A police car headed towards him and passed him, then swerved in reverse, and “pretty much about took me out,” says Kovach. When the officer saw the name on the license, Kovach says that he asked, “You’re the guy who made a complaint on us earlier. Are you going to make a complaint about me?” Kovach, who evidentally photographed the puddle he was avoiding with his camera phone, said that he probably would if he felt unduly harassed. Deputy Shawn James then wrote him a $232 ticket for walking in the roadway and, according to Kovach, threatened to take him to jail for disorderly conduct if he continued to speak.
When several City of Folly Beach police officers resigned last spring, Chief of Police Terry Boatwright implemented a “seasonal augmentation program,” bringing off-duty Charleston County cops to Folly to fill the staffing void and ensure that two policemen are always present on the island. He insists that James is “one of the finest deputy sheriffs Charleston County has.”
Boatwright, who came to his current position from the county six months ago, admits that the sight of unfamiliar faces on the police force irked many Folly residents who are accustomed to having personal, friendly relationships with their public safety officers. County cops are “probably not going to engage in a great deal of conversation,” Boatwright explains, because they don’t know who they’re dealing with. “You could be an ax murderer or Folly Beach’s finest, but at two in the morning, if I just met you, there’s going to be a professional distance.”
Folly residents’ stories of interactions with Deputy James hardly convey “distance.” Matt Burnup, owner of Cool Breeze bicycle rentals, claims to have been “verbally harassed” on several occasions. “He came into Bert’s one night and got really aggressive. He got in my face and said, ‘I understand you have a problem with the way we’re handling things down here. Who do you think you are to be calling up and complaining on us when we’re trying to do our job?'” Burnup, who admits to having a history of fight-related arrests, says he kept his cool and listened for 30 minutes while James boasted about his Deputy of the Year award in 2004, and how he’d “arrest his own parents for anything if they ever broke the law.”
“He’s out of control,” says Burnup.
Although many residents were worried about county deputies patrolling Folly when they first arrived, most feel that the officers’ initial gruffness has subsided. “They’re used to serious crime up in North Charleston,” says Julia Hastings of Bert’s Market. “It just takes a little while to relax and learn that Folly Beach people are good people. They don’t have to walk around ready to pull their guns.”
Most everyone on Folly with a complaint about a particular officer is quick to acknowledge that as a whole, the force does an excellent job. At the same time, they’re concerned by stories like Deputy James pulling over a respected local garbage collector (in his personal vehicle) for driving in the middle of the road, then handcuffing him until several neighbors came out and petitioned for his release. East Hudson resident Michael Dietrich witnessed the incident. “He (James) was overly aggressive considering the situation,” he says.
Another Folly resident, Dustin Sheppard, was arrested at 1:44 a.m. on April 6 while walking home from the Center Street bars. At the end of his five-block walk, Sheppard claims Deputy James stopped him in his driveway and arrested him for intoxication in the roadway. James’ official report states, “I stopped out with the subject after observing him walking in the middle of the roadway.” The report says Sheppard was “disorderly” and “continued to use profanity against me” before saying that James “had him sit in the back of my cruiser to take him to his residence.”
Sheppard says James claimed to smell marijuana inside his house. When the deputy entered, Sheppard says he placed his hand on James’s shoulder, saying, “You can’t just come into my house.” The report says, “The subject put his hand on my chest as to push me.” Sheppard claims it was only the arrival of a reasonable city cop who convinced James not to charge him with assault. He spent the night in jail on the intoxicated in roadway charge.
Employees at Snapper Jack’s recently overheard Deputy James, when asked after entering the restaurant if he was looking for someone, reply, “I’m looking for anyone that wants to go to jail. I’m the one they’re talking about.”
On June 20, Deputy James was patrolling the Snapper Jack’s parking area, “utilizing a flashlight and glancing in vehicles for illegal contraband in plain view,” according to his police report. Vehicle owner Kevin Hodges yelled to James from Snapper Jack’s roof, “What the hell are you doing?” James, who had spotted two open Budweiser cans in Hodges’ car, then entered the bar and arrested him for disorderly conduct.
Much of the concern about county cops at Folly Beach likely stems from deep-rooted fears from island residents that their community is changing. “They’re targeting young people,” says arrested bicyclist Conklin. “When they can pull anyone on their bicycle, say, ‘You’ve been drinking too much,’ and not give you a Breathalyzer, it seems like they want to run the locals out of here to make it more of a resort community.”
Snapper Jack’s owner Mike Kirages, who recently had a 16-year-old dishwasher quit after he was searched while taking the trash to the dumpster out their back door, sees the presence of county cops as a move towards incorporating Folly Beach into the City of Charleston. “We’re providing a situation where the police want to quit, and going to the county to fill the void,” says Kirages.
“I can’t control what people’s fears are, but I can tell you that if they’re complaining, we look into every allegation,” says Chief Boatwright. “Shawn James’ name has floated up here before, and we’ve found no basis to any complaints. We investigate these things to the nth degree, because we owe it to the public and the officers themselves, so if there is nothing to it, we can try to clear their good name. It’s a very high statistic that with most of the complaints investigated in Charleston County, the officers are ultimately exonerated.”
James is not the only officer facing recent complaints. West Ashley resident Lisa Michaels and her boyfriend both received $1,087 tickets at the Washout on Sunday, July 1, for “walking on sand dunes,” despite signs warning of a $200 fine for the offense. Michaels contends that they were merely sitting on rocks a few feet from their vehicle, not on the dunes, when they were confronted by Folly Beach public safety officer Scott Werre. She says that when they questioned the charge, Officer Werre threatened her boyfriend with a Taser before handcuffing him and forcing them both to kneel on the road. She filed an official complaint on Friday, July 6.
Boatwright has received a complaint from Conklin and plans to examine it this week. Kovach says he filed a complaint with an officer who picked it up from his home by hand, but Boatwright claims he’s never received it. Neither that officer nor Deputy James were reachable for comment.
Most longtime Folly residents readily admit that the downtown community is a party scene. On any given night, police officers waiting outside a bar or convenience store in the wee hours of the morning have a fairly good chance of apprehending a drunk driver or publicly intoxicated person.
Still, some feel that in recent months that vigilance has gone too far. “They’re here to protect us, not harass us,” says Kovach. “People shouldn’t be scared to walk out their own back door to go to the store because you might get a $232 ticket for crossing the street. It’s that bad.” He questions the attitude of a public safety officer whose first priority is making arrests.
“Deputy James has continued to tell everybody how he’s cop of the year, Mr. Robo cop, and bragging about himself. We don’t need that arrogance out here,” says Kovach. James has also refused to push back the date of bicyclist Conklin’s July 13 trial, despite being told by Conklin on the night of her arrest that she’ll be in a bridal party in Chicago that day. This week she plans to pay the fine and take a misdemeanor on her record.
Many of James’s arrest reports on Folly involve pulling a car for cracked windshields, failure to signal turns within 100 feet, or “window tint violations,” then approaching drivers who have “quivering lips” or “shaking hands.” The reported incidents typically result in arrests for small amounts of marijuana.
James made news this week when a foot chase in West Ashley resulted in his firing upon and shooting an armed man. Folly resident Dietrich points out that a beat on the beach is likely a different job than dealing with hard criminals in the city and recognizes the difficulty of adjusting to a more laid-back environment. “Good officers add strength to our community,” he says. “Maybe there’s a little room for some sensitivity training, and just learning how to relax a little bit. I don’t want to see the removal of a potentially very good police officer. I’d rather see him encouraged to modify his behavior to his new environment.”
According to Chief Boatwright, the seasonal augmentation plan ends at Labor Day. He made the decision to bring out summer help based on the savings of not having to hire full-time city officers that work during the winter when fewer are needed, and stands by his men. “I’m a stickler that we are providing a service and ought not to be in any way mistreating citizens,” says Boatwright. “Shawn James has a great attitude, and he’s not going to be put in a position to be scrutinized for it. He knows what his job is, he’s good at it, and he’s not going to act outside those parameters. If he does, we’ll deal with it.”