Fort Mill Times

York County counts on its credibility to stop crime at the state line

York County law enforcement is taking an unusual strategy to help communities such as Tega Cay, Fort Mill and Lake Wylie cut off crime at the state line -- by marketing itself to criminals.

"It's a completely different world here in York [County], and the criminals in Charlotte need to know it," Kevin Brackett, solicitor for York and Union counties, said during a recent River Hills Lioness Club meeting. "We want to generate a buzz within the criminal community."

The York County Sheriff's Office and 16th Circuit Solicitor's Office have teamed up to consider ways for educating potential criminals about the consequences of committing crime, particularly violent crime, in York County.

Generally, Brackett said, prosecution for violent crimes in York County can be much more severe than similar crimes committed in Mecklenburg County. The combination of Charlotte's population - estimated at more than 630,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau - and underfunded, overloaded courts, means more often than not, convictions in Mecklenburg County come with a fraction of the jail time compared to similar York County cases, he said.

"Due to our population, we do arrest more individuals in our county, which has taxed the resources within our courts significantly and has created back logs of cases," said Capt. John Williams of the Steele Creek Division of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department.

According to the York County Sheriff's Office, calls for service in Fort Mill rose 50 percent, compared to just more than 10 percent in Rock Hill.

"We have seen an increase," said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant. "A lot of violent crimes, armed robberies and things like that, are coming from people who are coming down from North Carolina."

One such crime, the Dec. 22, 2007 armed robbery at Bank of York in Lake Wylie, resulted in two men receiving life sentences without parole and the arrest of two others.

"Our sheriff's office did a fantastic job in this case," Brackett said. "This was just a terrible crime. They were in there about five minutes."

Four people entered the bank and pepper sprayed employees and customers as they crawled into the vault. Officers saw the getaway car just as it crossed into North Carolina, and followed it until it crossed back over into South Carolina along Carowinds Boulevard. A seven-minute chase on I-77 through the rain ensued before the criminals were apprehended.

"They were basically trying to get back to North Carolina," Brackett said. "They kind of figured if we can get back to North Carolina, we can disappear."

The two men receiving the heaviest sentences - Kenneth Young and John L. Porter - were both career criminals in North Carolina, Brackett said.

"They never should have been on the street to do what they did in Lake Wylie," he said.

Such cases are the reason Brackett and Bryant plan to raise billboards on I-77 informing drivers of the penalties for crime in York County. Bryant is not sure when the billboards might go up, but may use either standard or electronic signs. Other possibilities include placing information about convictions, particularly thieves, at the site of the crime as a deterrent and networking Web cams in banks to allow the sheriff's office to see inside at all times.

During the past fiscal year, warrants for arrest in Brackett's two-county jurisdiction were up 13 percent, with the greatest increase in York County.

As York County grows, he says, it's imperative crime prevention and prosecution stay ahead of the growth curve.