If there’s a safer place to be in South Carolina than northeastern York County, one national trade organization hasn’t found it.
The National Council for Home Safety and Security released its list of the top 50 safest cities on May 8. Tega Cay topped the list. Fort Mill was second.
“We’re always excited to be recognized, but that designation is not as important to us as our work in the community and our relationship with the community,” said Steve Parker, police chief in Tega Cay.
If Parker doesn’t sound overwhelmed by the latest list, it’s because Tega Cay isn’t new to lists. Just before he took charge at the end of 2014, the city was named South Carolina’s safest municipality by consumer group SafeWise. Fort Mill was No. 7 in that ranking. Tega Cay has had similar honors since, including at one point ranking No. 64 nationwide among safest communities.
The latest ranking wasn’t too surprising in Fort Mill either.
“I’m glad to hear that,” said Fort Mill Town Councilman Ronnie Helms, who chairs the town public safety committee. “We always thought it was a great place to be. That’s good people are recognizing it.”
Helms said he wouldn’t take an extra pat on the back for the designation, given his committee standing.
“The police department probably gets the pat on the back,” he said. “The police and the fire department."
The National Council for Home Safety and Security, based in Washington, D.C. and online at alarms.org, offers research and reports on security issues. The trade association includes alarm installers, contractors and workers in related fields. It began in 2006.
According to the report, communities were ranked based on federal crime reports, population data and in-house research. Compared to the South Carolina average of seven violent crimes per 1,000 people, Tega Cay almost didn’t register a percentage. The city had only one violent crime against its population of 9,501. Fort Mill had less than two per 1,000 residents.
The 15.68 property crimes in Tega Cay and 14.71 in Fort Mill — again, both based on 1,000 residents — ranked well below the state average of 51.
The new listing also includes other York County locales in its top 50. Clover ranked No. 14, followed by York at No. 19. Other area municipalities include Lancaster (No. 24) and Chester (No. 31).
The list includes only communities of 5,000 or more people.
Tega Cay has 26 police officers and two staff members. Fort Mill has 46 officers and six staff. Fort Mill has a larger population, though both communities face similar issues.
“We know that the city and the population is growing, and our work is cut out for us,” Parker said.
More residents and more businesses can mean more crime, so both police departments aggressively work to keep their communities safe. Both departments have camps where children learn about police work. Both have programs to recognize good citizenship and decision-making. Both have officers who work in schools, and to educate the public.
Both realize community safety starts at the top, even above the police force.
“We have a very supportive city management,” Parker said. “To keep that designation you have to be very supportive of law enforcement.”
Maj. Bryan Zachary with the Fort Mill Police Department said any agency needs confidence from its elected officials.
“We’re given the resources we need to accomplish the job,” he said.
Helms said his role with the public safety committee can involve important decisions, but he is confident Fort Mill already has the right people to make them.
“There have been a couple of issues that have come up over the years,” he said, “but overall we leave that to the police department and the fire department.”
Relationships and reputation for a police department can extend well beyond consumer report rankings. Last fall in Charlotte, considerable public protests broke out following the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer. Those events followed shootings and protests nationwide, from Minnesota to Baton Rouge, La., to Dallas, Texas. Voices both condemning and supporting police forces were heard.
Just before and during the the events in Charlotte, Tega Cay put its annual budget together to include semi-automatic rifles for its police officers. Some residents questioned if the guns were needed, though Parker said they were standard equipment for law enforcement. Ultimately the city moved forward with the purchase, with city council stating Parker and his department had earned their trust to make law enforcement decisions.
“We could have all kinds of accolades,” Parker said, “but it’s our community relationships that make the difference.”
Zachary said while recent years and last summer in particular shined a spotlight on police work nationwide, they also led to outpourings of local support.
“A lot of people have come to us and expressed their appreciation,” he said. “We’re humbled by that."