Live 5 Investigates: Officer training time, budget concerns

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Police-involved shootings across the country this year are raising questions about how officers are trained.

South Carolina officers receive twelve weeks of basic training, which is below the national average.

The Director of the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy, where our state's officers are trained, says he'd like to see longer training and implement other programs.

But it boils down to the budget.

SCCJA

South Carolina has one central training academy in Columbia where every class one officer in the state gets his or her basic training.

Recruits can only attend if they have a bona fide job offer from a state agency. The academy also hosts advanced training and instructor training courses.

"From legals to domestics, to traffic, defensive tactics, handcuffing, that sort of thing," said SCCJA Director Jackie Swindler. "This is the foundation for which law enforcement builds. It starts here."

Swindler believes there are major benefits of having one central state training academy.

"Other states do it differently. They have little community colleges or different fragmented academies around. So you realize what you have there- you have a different set of instruction."

At SCCJA, candidates live on campus five days a week for three months to work on the 300-acre campus.

"Regardless of where you are in the state, they've been trained the same," Swindler said.

TRAINING TIME

A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics says the national average for basic law enforcement training is 840 hours, or about 21 weeks.

That excludes any required field training. The report was released in 2016 and uses data from 2013.

Training time nationally is on the rise.

A previous report released in 2009 said the average was 761 hours.

South Carolina has 12 weeks of training. Several nearby states do longer training courses.

Virginia and North Carolina train for 16-17 weeks. Kentucky requires 23 weeks. Alabama trains for 13, Tenneessee for 12, and Georgia and Mississippi require 11.

"I will tell you we have introduced in our budget this year to go to 15 weeks. But right now we're at 12. Just some years ago we were at nine weeks… A lot has to with the amount of time you are afforded to teach the students. And a lot of that has to do with budget."

BUDGET

SCCJA's budget depends mostly on traffic tickets.

"Historically, the academy has been funded off of fines and fees. That means a portion of those traffic stops. Well, that is so unpredictable."

For example, if you get a speeding ticket, some of the court fees are come to the Academy.

They were operating on about $15 million annually. In recent years, traffic stops and ticket money decreased, so the academy is operating on about $13 million right now.

Month to month budgeting can be so unpredictable, staff does everything they can to keep costs low. They bring in coupons to lower food and kitchen costs.

"We've been tasked for a long time to manage to do a lot with a little," Swindler added.

For the first time, the General Assembly gave the Academy 3.4 million in the state budget this year. But Swindler wants more.

To start with- he doesn't like the idea that "officers writing traffic tickets" means "officers get trained."

"What perplexes me is how that concept ever came about. That's not the way we should be," he said. "Let the state collect the fines and fees, whatever that may be and keep that. But give us a consistent line item budget so that we'll know what's coming in."

FUTURE PLANS

Swindler is requesting $18 million total from the state of South Carolina. That would cover some big new changes.

It would bring training to 15 weeks. They could create a mobile training team to go into the field across the state to teach officers and brush up their skills.

Swindler wants to bump up salaries at the academy.

Lastly, he has an idea to help agencies across the state pay for psychological evaluations on every candidate before they get to the academy, which isn't happening right now.

"I think it's that important that we produce a product that can go out and really do the job like policing is designed to do. Treat people with dignity and respect, keep people safe, keep themselves safe… We're going to be much better as a society when people understand each other and appreciate each other."

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