20 percent of criminal justice recruits are 'functionally illiterate'

Richard Gilbert is attending the Criminal Justice Academy to become an officer with the Summerville Police Department.

COLUMBIA -- Nearly 20 percent of the 843 prospective police officers, jailers and dispatchers who entered the state's Criminal Justice Academy in the past year could not read at a 10th-grade level. Nearly 4 percent were below a sixth-grade reading level.

That is of great concern to academy Director Hubert Harrell. Police officers are called upon daily to know laws, write reports, take witness statements and fill out booking sheets. Their ability to do so can prove crucial to the successful investigation and prosecution of crimes.

Harrell said instructors have encountered a number of academy students who cannot read or comprehend the material presented to them. "They are functionally illiterate," he said.

Harrell said many also would make solid officers if they can overcome their literacy issues. The goal is to catch these problems and get them help before they fail out of the academy and the investment that has been made in them is lost, Harrell said.

It costs the state about $5,000 to train one student for nine weeks at the academy. An academy study of failure rates found that 58 students who flunked academics or proficiency testing between November 2006 and October 2007 cost the state nearly $157,000 in lost revenue.

Most academic failures start at the third week, when students begin studying the law, said training operations manager Michael Lanier, who conducted the study. "The material is at a 10th-grade level," he said. "If you're not there, you're not going to pass."

Academy officials are encouraging law enforcement agencies to screen their recruits for reading comprehension. A number of larger agencies already do this, but smaller agencies with fewer resources often do not. Not surprisingly, the study found nearly 34 percent of the failing candidates came from departments with 50 or fewer officers.

At Harrell's direction, the academy began testing new students for reading comprehension last year. Officials are reviewing those numbers and devising parameters to better catch reading problems early on so students can be referred to literacy programs or remedial help before they start classes, academy special operations manager Florence McCants said. "We don't have the resources to teach reading here," she said.