South Carolina technical colleges will soon be able to offer classes to law enforcement recruits, according to a plan that aims to increase educational offerings for potential officers and ease the burden on law enforcement agencies that need manpower.
The move would increase instruction time for new officers, allowing them to earn credits for a college degree. In addition, the state grant money would cover tuition costs for many, relieving pressure on the budgets of local police departments, according to a copy of the plan obtained by the Post and Courier.
Some Charleston area officers see the proposal as a long-awaited step toward a more regional approach to preparing future officers – a change that has long been resisted by the state’s only training academy in Columbia.
SC Criminal Justice Academy employees viewed these efforts as a threat to their funding and the consistency that comes from training all new officers in one place. But so far, they seem inclined to work with technical schools on a plan that significantly reinforces the first classroom lessons for recruits, preserving the eight-week hands-on sessions they receive at Columbia.
The plan will need final approval from the Law Enforcement Training Council, which oversees the academy and has legal authority over police training in South Carolina, academy officials said. Legislative approval may also be required.
But technical schools would probably be able to launch classes fairly quickly after that, a possibility that excites those who see regional training as the best way to guide recruits to their communities and needs here.
“If we want to be a real profession, we need to act as one,” said North Charleston’s assistant police chief, Greg Gomes. “Part of that is getting the education and training right for the officers, and the technical schools will be able to offer that.”
The proposal would open up early training for a larger group of students across the state, at a time when a national debate over police responsibility and reforms caused many police officers to leave the profession. A good third of the 1,000 police officers who graduated from the South Carolina academy last year have already left the police, said academy director Jackie Swindler.
Currently, prospective officers need to be hired and sponsored by a law enforcement agency to qualify for training. The technical schools plan would allow any American citizen to receive 14 weeks of initial education, provided they have a high school diploma or GED certificate, clean criminal record and are at least 20 years old. Those with work commitments would go to the gym; those who didn’t have up to a year to find a police job and complete training, according to the plan.
South Carolina students could also get full financial aid by earning 12 credits for the 66 required for an associate’s degree, said Shawn Livingston, a former Mount Pleasant police supervisor who runs the criminal justice program at Trident Technical College in North Charleston.
“It allows you to work to get an associate’s degree at no cost out of pocket,” said Livingston, who worked on the plan.
The move would also save police departments the expense of putting people on payroll while waiting for a place at the academy, said Francie Austin, a North Charleston attorney who has been working with Gomes on regional alternatives. “That would free up a lot of money.”
Pressure to change
The academy has been under pressure for more than a decade to break its unique approach to all training under one roof, especially after the lack of space in the classrooms has led to months of delays in officer enrollment. Frustrations increased as new recruits remained on police payrolls, unable to do the jobs for which they were hired.
South Carolina is among a handful of states with a single training academy, a model that has remained unchanged for five decades, despite the doubling of the state’s population at that time. Georgia, North Carolina and Florida have several training locations. Nationally, educational institutions, such as two-year colleges, operate nearly half of all law enforcement training academies, revealed a 2016 Bureau of Justice study.
The cashless academy has been reluctant to risk new approaches that could divert training funds from its $ 16 million annual budget. Academy officials also fear that the move will undermine their mission to provide equal training to all departments, regardless of size.
These reservations prompted the council last year to reject proposals from the Charleston and North Charleston police duels to establish regional academies in Lowcountry.
The academy has therefore largely overcome long waiting times, allowing recruits to begin training with four weeks of video classes in their home departments, thus freeing up space for classrooms in Columbia. But the pandemic has severely hampered that progress, closing the academy for seven weeks before reopening in July with social disengagement measures and small classes. The academy says it has been catching up since then, but some police departments are still feeling the pinch.
Gomes, from North Charleston, said his department has seven new officers who have been waiting to enter the academy since the beginning of October. They are scheduled to leave in late January, which means they are unlikely to hit the streets until spring.
Some agencies, including North Charleston, also complained about the quality of the production of the academy’s videotaped classes and the recruits’ inability to ask instructors questions when they encounter an obstacle.
The technical school’s plan emerged from discussions between North Charleston police and Trident in 2019 over the establishment of a comprehensive basic training program in Lowcountry, a plan rejected by the state.
Livingston said officials at Trident and its sister schools consulted the academy’s team in drafting the new proposal, which asks for instructions to design the state’s videos and curricula directly. Instructors could then delve deeper into topics ranging from traffic stops and domestic violence to court proceedings, mental illness and First Amendment rights. Most of the state’s 16 technical colleges would be able to teach, since all but two already offer a criminal justice component, he said.
Gomes said he hopes this model will lead to comprehensive regional training programs that would allow departments to keep recruits closer to home and educate them on the needs of the communities they will serve.
“This is the crack in the door that we have been looking for, and as soon as technical schools prove they can do a phenomenal job of preparing people for that job, we hope it will expand,” he said.
Charleston police chief Luther Reynolds said he wants to know more about the technical schools proposal, but thinks it could be a step in the right direction. Charleston police already have a pre-school program and would like to expand it to complete basic training. He applauds the academy’s instructors, but insists that the police need more options to prepare recruits for the challenges that officers face today.
“I think anything we can do to open this conversation and embrace changes and improvements is a positive thing,” said Reynolds.
Still, the academy’s crook warns departments against waiting too long. The academy is open to new ideas, but not to a central change in its mission. Helping with the academy’s current approach would be welcome; trying to replace it with a regional “back door” program, he said.
“It will not replace anything we do,” said Swindler of the technical college plan. “(The training council) will not allow them to assume the role of replacing the criminal justice academy.”