Technical colleges in South Carolina are planning to offer law enforcement classes for police recruits to augment police officer education and to support local police agencies in need of manpower.
A report in The Post and Courier explains that the plan would enable new officers to earn credits toward a college degree subsidized by state, with scholarship money covering the tuition costs. The proposal coming from technical colleges could help ease the financial burden that police departments shoulder training and recruiting new officers.
Currently, there is only one central training academy in South Carolina – the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia. The usual officer training process consists of a regional police department hiring and training a new recruit, and then waiting to send that recruit to the academy to be fully trained and certified.
Officials at the academy see decentralized training at technical colleges as a potential threat to their funding, as well as problematic for ensuring consistent and equal training across the board for new officers.
However, the academy has agreed to assist technical colleges stepping into the training and recruitment space, and plans to cooperate with the schools to offer early classroom lessons while maintaining the current 8-week training protocol in Columbia.
The plan to optimize training and recruitment to get new officers out into their communities
At present, every recruit in South Carolina receives the same training. According to a 2019 report in the Associated Press, the state is limited to 1,000 new recruits a year due to temporal and spatial constraints, as well as a lack of manpower. Every three weeks, a new batch of 75 recruits begins their 400-hour training program.
To boost recruitment numbers, Trident Technical College proposed holding basic training at its 16 technical schools to get more prospective officers through the system, but the idea was met coldly by lawmakers. Democratic state Sen. Gerald Malloy said, “I think it needs to be under a single umbrella.”
However, over a year later, the proposal seems to be gaining steam, in part due to a need for more officers. In addition to the academy’s training bottleneck at the academy that restricts the output of new officers, the recent debate regarding police accountability and reforms has had a significant, negative impact on the profession. According to academy Director Jackie Swindler, around a third of the 1,000 officers who graduated from the academy last year have already left the force.
The plan currently awaits approval by the Law Enforcement Training Council and state legislator, but many are hopeful.
North Charleston Assistant Police Chief Greg Gomes said, “If we want to be a true profession, we need to act like one. Part of that is getting the right education and training for officers, and the technical schools will be able to deliver that.”
To qualify for training, prospective officers have to be hired and sponsored by a law enforcement agency. The technical colleges’ plan would allow all U.S. citizens with a high school diploma/GED and a clean criminal record to receive 14 weeks of instruction. Afterwards, students would need to find a job and then go on to the academy.
It’s an attractive proposal for all parties involved, as students can receive an associate degree at little to no cost, at the same time as saving police departments the money for training recruits and keep them on the payroll while waiting for a slot to open at the academy. Instead, the state covers the training costs.
The road forward
According to The Post and Courier, South Carolina is one of a handful of states that sticks to its single training-site model, while Georgia, North Carolina and Florida each have multiple training sites. On a national level, two-year colleges provide nearly half of all law enforcement training academies, according to a 2016 Bureau of Justice study, indicating that South Carolina’s model is perhaps outdated.
The S.C. Criminal Justice Academy has been reluctant to offer multiple training sites because of budget concerns, and has delt with its wait times by introducing training at local departments using video lessons. Despite these efforts, with the pandemic further squeezing class-sizes at the academy, the overall education quality and efficiency of officer training has been reduced.
Gomes hopes that by allowing technical schools to shoulder some of the burden, eventually the academy will transition away from its centralized approach and allow regional centers to take over, thereby keeping recruits closer to the communities they will eventually serve.
He said, “This is the crack in the door we have been looking for, and once the technical schools can prove they can do a phenomenal job of preparing people for this job, we would look for it to expand.”
Academy Director Swindler is still on the fence about changing the current model, concerned about alternative, “back door,” regional programs that may aim to replace the academy. Referring to technical schools’ plan to offer training, he cautioned, “It’s not going to take the place of anything we do. [The training council] will not allow them to take on the role of replacing the criminal justice academy.”