S.C. troopers get less training

Susan Thomas's husband Doug was killed in Iraq after going there to work as a civilian police officer in 2004, after 17 years as a South Carolina Highway Patrolman. He had told her the working conditions, respect and training were better there than in the

COLUMBIA — South Carolina troopers spend less time in formal training than their counterparts in neighboring states, a problem that has some questioning if it contributed to the misbehavior caught on videotapes that surfaced in the last month.

A trooper here spends 4 1/2 months in basic training followed by at least a month of on-the-job supervised training. Georgia troopers get more than eight months, Florida's train for 10 months and North Carolina troopers spend about a year learning the job.

Meanwhile, a string of budget cuts slashed spending at the state Department of Public Safety, the Highway Patrol's parent agency, by more than $35 million since 2003.

In 1989, more than 1,000 troopers patrolled the roads. In 2003, that number had shrunk to 867, and starting salaries were so low, the Highway Patrol commander at the time, Col. Mike Kelley, said he couldn't attract the people he needed.

Morale suffered as a result, according to retired troopers and other sources who have spoken to The Post and Courier. Some accounts during recent years had troopers running from one crash to another just to keep up. In 2008, the number of troopers has slowly climbed back to 950, but there still are fewer troopers on the road today than there were nearly two decades ago.

Alarm spread after several videos surfaced in the last month that showed troopers on separate occasions hitting fleeing suspects with their cruisers, one in Greenwood County yelling at a suspect, "You better run, (n-word), I'm fixin' to kill you," and another handcuffing a woman to the bumper of a patrol car and later leaving her alone on the side of the road.

The troopers involved received suspensions lasting between 12 hours and three days, and some were ordered to undergo specialty training, including counseling and stress management. All remain on the job.

The tape that shows the trooper using the racial epithet led to the ouster of Public Safety Director James K. Schweitzer and Highway Patrol Col. Russell Roark. The incidents also have sparked several state and federal investigations into trooper behavior.

What's more, the images caught on troopers' dashboard cameras raise questions about the culture of the Highway Patrol, one that is dependent on leadership and training.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said he couldn't define the culture within the Highway Patrol but said one thing is clear: "It is yielding some god-awful things."

Michael Smith, chairman of the University of South Carolina's Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a former police officer, said he is appalled at the training standards for the state's law enforcement.

"Law enforcement training in South Carolina, in general, is not good," Smith said. "It is not long enough and there are some real questions of the quality of the training. We really struggle when you compare us to national norms."

South Carolina troopers take classes on all elements of the job, including use of force, stress, civil rights, police brutality and information on how to handle domestic violence, drunken driving and child abuse cases, for example. The troopers also get field training in driving and firearms.

Several requests by The Post and Courier for interviews with Public Safety officials about trooper training were not granted, so it's unclear why training in South Carolina is shorter than in nearby states and whether it is a result of budget constraints.

Information about the training was provided by the Public Safety Department in three documents covering policy, the training schedule and a guideline for field training.

The troopers spend 18 weeks at a training academy in Columbia, where weekdays begin at 5:30 a.m. with physical training and go through 8:30 p.m., ending most days with supervised study or work in a computer lab.

After training at the academy, the troopers, who are on probation for a year, begin field training that lasts at least four weeks. During this on-the-job training, troopers are graded by their training officers and supervisors on how they perform. They continue to be evaluated once every two months during their first year.

Smith said the state should decentralize the academy. One of the problems is the expense of housing people during training, which is money that could otherwise be spent on the training and course instruction. Also, some of the training could be done through the state's community colleges, as is done in Florida, he said.

Smith was part of a study the university released in September that looked at training for local law enforcement in the state and across the country. The study revealed that the basic training for municipal police officers and sheriff's deputies was more than 40 percent below the median training in the nation and in the South in 2006.

South Carolina ranked second behind Louisiana in requiring the fewest number of basic training hours for law enforcement certification.

For Susan Thomas of Summerville, it is important that South Carolina troopers get more support and more training. She made a vow to do all she could to help push for changes within the Highway Patrol as a way of remembering her husband, Doug.

Doug Thomas, a trooper for 17 years, felt he needed to take a break from the agency because he wasn't getting the training and support he needed, so he went to Iraq to work as a civilian police officer, his wife said. He was killed five months later, in November 2004, by shrapnel from a roadside bomb.

"I will never forget him telling me that in Iraq he was treated with respect and trained well," Susan Thomas said. "He said the working conditions were better there as far as treatment as an employee."

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Hartsville Democrat who has been studying the state's criminal justice system for more than a year as chairman of a special task force, said the need for quality training is paramount. Still, he said he is unsure training would have prevented the wrongdoing uncovered in recent weeks.

"Some of the conduct is inexcusable," Malloy said. "I do not know if training would stop that kind of problem."

Those issues are more of a matter of supervision and discipline, he said.

Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Yvonne Wenger at (803) 799-9051 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.