A little over a year ago, Todd Coring unlocked the door of his new office to find paperwork scattered and water damage throughout a building he knew would be inadequate for a functioning police department. But this would be nowhere near his biggest challenge as Southport’s new chief of police.
His staff was down to six officers (soon to be five) and the responsibility of regaining the trust of those his predecessor had broken was now on his shoulders. Everyone in the city was wondering, “How are you going to fix this?”
Southport made national headlines in the summer of 2018 after its top two law enforcement officers were arrested and later fired. Former Police Chief Gary Smith and Lt. Mike Simmons were indicted after a months-long investigation into allegations they were both working second jobs at a trucking company and were sometimes out of state when they were supposed to be protecting the city. Each was charged with obtaining property by false pretenses, willful failure to discharge duties and obstruction of justice.
The Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office took over patrolling the city at a cost of $1,700 a day and the Southport officers were put on non-disciplinary paid administrative leave. The city also hired the agency USS ISS to conduct an internal affairs investigation of the police department.
Meanwhile, Coring was serving as a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office where he was starting his 20th year and nearing a promotion. He enjoyed his job, but friends and family were asking him if he was ready to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and become the city’s next chief of police.
Although hesitant to leave his position with the county, he expressed interest in the Southport position to city officials. A few resumes had come in, but none of the applicants compared to Coring’s combination of experience and dedication to Southport. He was hired in October, started work November 1, and had the police back on the street five days later.
A clean slate
After more than 100 days on leave, the six officers who had not quit were called by Coring to meet on November 2. An hour before the meeting, one member handed in his resignation letter. With the remaining five men, Coring continued as planned — preparing equipment, assigning vehicles, setting schedules and assuring them this was a clean slate.
“I want you guys to go back out, just get in the swing of things,” he told the group.
Previously, all but two full-time officers had supervisory ranks, according to the audit. The report describes interviews where officers complained of promotions made without any process.
That day, Coring explained to the officers he was resetting the ranks: everyone was a patrol officer.
He also had an open discussion with the officers about how they would respond to people who criticized or questioned them about the department’s past.
Coring had been in their shoes. He was working at the Sheriff’s Office when former Brunswick County Sheriff Ronald Hewett was arrested in 2014.
“I remember taking somebody to jail once and he was in the back of my car and he was calling me a crook and saying, ‘You’re dirty like they are,’ and ‘Y’all just need to quit,’” Coring said. “It’s kind of hard to go through that.”
He also recalls the turmoil and anxiety among his colleagues in the following months. Coring said he knew the Southport arrests must have weighed on the officers.
“But we all came back with open arms when I came on board,” Coring said. “We understood we were all in it together.”
A new team
Throughout the next few months, staffing became a top priority. Four more resignation letters trickled in, many saying they needed change and would find it elsewhere. Riley Ransom and Eric Maynes were the two officers who stayed with the department.
The officers were working overtime, taking extra shifts just to ensure there was at least someone on duty at all times. Coring said it took about five months before he was able to breathe again.
The audit described the minimum patrol as a safety concern. There were not enough officers to promptly respond to calls or provide backup. Today, there are at least two officers on duty at all times.
The department will also advertise soon for a sergeant position, recently funded by the city.
The department now has eight full-time officers and is finishing paperwork on three hires, which will total a full staff of 13. Tony Burke, former assistant chief in Oak Island, was brought on as lieutenant in December.
At the time of last year’s arrests, a full staff was only 11 full-time officers, but there were also three vacancies. It was noted in the audit that there were hardly any requests for resources made to the city prior to the department’s suspension.
In Coring’s first budget process, he asked for a 12th patrol officer position, funding for a vendor to update the department’s policy manual, three computers, two patrol cars, four long guns and an upgrade to the software system.
Once Coring got inside the police station on West Moore Street, he realized the building was in poor condition.
“It was very, very obvious and very apparent that was not a suitable location to be working in,” he said.
While Coring was on the board of aldermen, the city purchased the new city hall building at 1029 North Howe Street. The police were supposed to relocate there, but the department had been forced to move temporarily to the former visitors center (now Indian Trail Meeting Hall) when mold issues were recognized in the old city hall on Moore Street and space in new city hall had still not been made.
In mid-January, after the second floor became available, Coring moved police department operations to city hall.
He also secured a vault for evidence in the new location. Investigators noted in the audit that the vault at the old city hall was a safety hazard because people could trap themselves. At the temporary station (now Indian Trail Meeting Hall), evidence was often left out in the open; some of the items they found in an office included a firearm from a suicide case and a sexual assault kit.
But some evidence is still in the old city hall, and it will be a significant undertaking to sort through. Each item has to be evaluated by case: should it be kept, destroyed, sold or returned?
“I was shocked when I went in there,” Coring said about the old city hall vault, adding that there was evidence seized by officers he knew when he was a kid.
From the ground up
Coring believes the officers need to be “leading from the ground up, not just sitting at the top,” and says the way to do that is through community policing.
“It’s important for them to be seen all the time, not just on a ‘call’ basis,” he said.
Before he became chief, Coring said he would hear complaints that police were rarely spotted around town. Now, officers are regularly on foot downtown and interacting with residents and business owners. They’ve re-implemented bike patrol and the ride-a-long program, which allows citizens to spend a few hours with an officer on the job. The police have also started holding quarterly meetings with local churches to plan emergency responses.
Another plan in the works is for Southport officers to “adopt” some of the communities around Southport, like Rivermist or Turtlewood, so residents in these areas would see them as go-to people when they need assistance..
One major difference Coring has made is incorporating social media with the police department. He posts on Facebook daily, about everything from car accidents to the weather to photos of the waterfront.
Coring said he feels good about where the department is now.
“We’ve taken great strides to right some of the (department’s) wrongs,” Coring said, “but we still got our work cut out for us.”
New uniforms will be premiering in the next few weeks in the traditional midnight blue police color. Two new vehicles are arriving this winter, and all the cars have a “new look.” Plus, there are the new officers; they’ve evaluated about 65 applicants this year.
It’s an entirely new department.
“We’re just taking it one bite at a time,” Coring said, “and it’s hard to believe we’re already at year one.”