When Saundra Rhodes retired in May as chief of the Horry County Police Department in South Carolina, news reports in the Myrtle Beach area noted that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division was investigating the handling of sexual assault cases by certain officers in her department, which is named as a defendant in two related lawsuits.
So when Statesboro city officials identified Rhodes last week as one of three finalists for chief of the Statesboro Police Department, some Statesboro Herald readers quickly made the connection. Statesboro officials also got calls from Myrtle Beach reporters.
Statesboro Deputy City Manager Robert Cheshire, who will be making the chief hiring decision in consultation with incoming City Manager Randy Wetmore, said they were already aware of the situation. But Cheshire noted that lawsuits against police departments are common.
"We looked into it as best we could," Cheshire said. "That's certainly a part of the equation, but how much we factor that in is to be determined as we get more information and as we get a feel for what the public's opinion is and what the elected officials' opinion is and the staff's opinion is."
When Statesboro advertised for a police chief, 21 individuals from 10 states applied. The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police helped review the applications, and a panel of city staff members and outside law enforcement officers interviewed seven semifinalists from whom the three finalists were selected.
That first panel didn't have all the information, "but these items were discussed with each candidate," Cheshire said Tuesday.
"One of the questions asked was whether there was anything embarrassing we might find in their past, and we went through those and we discussed them very candidly," he said.
The most reported case involving the Horry County Police Department is an investigation of a former detective, who was dismissed from the department in 2015 on sexual harassment allegations. Meanwhile, two lawsuits, the first filed in December and the second in May, alleged that a detective assigned to investigate rape cases sexually assaulted women identified only as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2.
In a May 25 story available through www.myrtlebeachonline.com, The Sun News reported an interview in which Rhodes said she had asked state law enforcement officials to investigate four officers in her department in the past year. Rhodes pointed out that she requested the investigations, and also said she wasn't retiring because of lawsuits.
Instead, Rhodes said she was retiring mainly to spend more time with her teenage son, The Sun News reported.
Rhodes was one year and seven months short of full retirement, and the Horry County government made a payment to South Carolina Retirement Systems to make her eligible for full benefits. WPDE Channel 15 television obtained and displayed a document showing that the amount required was $61,145.
Rhodes told The Sun Times the payment into her account had been by mutual agreement with Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge, who was not reached for comment.
Horry County Councilman Paul Prince, in a phone interview with the Statesboro Herald this week, said he didn't know about the payment into Rhodes' retirement account until it was done.
"I just didn't think that was appropriate and fair, because I think if it's fair for one person to do that, it's fair for the rest of the employees to do that," Prince said.
But he also said that Rhodes had been a good leader in the Horry County Police Department. She left the county's police force, which with almost 300 employees is more than three times the size of the Statesboro Police Department, after more than 23 years, having risen through the ranks from detective to become chief in 2012.
"From my standpoint, with my county council district, I had no problem with getting with her any time I wanted to and letting her know if we had problems and getting them taken care of," Prince said. "That part of it, she did a good job, and I think as a police chief she can do a good job."
Frank V. Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the agency became aware of lawsuits involving a detective in Rhodes' old department while reviewing Statesboro's police chief applications at the request of city officials and doing Internet searches.
"But that's pretty typical," Rotondo said. "When you've been a police chief, you recognize that people pat you on the head, but you're also there to blame for anything that happens to the department."
Association staff members placed Rhodes in a list of eight to 10 applicants they considered the most qualified. Rotondo said her resume impressed him as that of a successful chief in a fairly large county, but that he was equally impressed with the others on the list association suggested.
Asked about the county paying to complete Rhodes' retirement, Rotondo said, "That's done all the time."
Statesboro officials have a private agency conducting more extensive background checks on the finalists.
"That's going to still be ongoing throughout the process until the selection is made," said Human Resources Director Jeff Grant.
The Statesboro Herald obtained a phone number purported to be Rhodes' home number and left messages Friday and Saturday, but has not reached her for an interview.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.