Law enforcement training council

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel leads the state's Law Enforcement Training Council on April 24, 2019. Staff/Andrew Brown

COLUMBIA — South Carolina's top law enforcement leaders rejected a proposal aimed at speeding up training for hundreds of police recruits in the Lowcountry and increasing the number of new officers who can be put on patrol every year. 

Members of the State Law Enforcement Training Council said the idea needed more study, effectively putting the brakes on the latest effort to give Charleston-area police agencies another option to sidestep the months-long wait for classroom openings at the state's lone training facility in Columbia. 

Shawn Livingston, director of Trident Technical College's Criminal Justice Department, asked the council on Wednesday to allow the school to serve as a partner to the state Criminal Justice Academy to help hasten the process for getting prospective officers trained and certified. 

Under the proposal, Trident Tech would help educate would-be officers at its North Charleston campus. Then, it would send those recruits on to the state academy where they'd receive the remaining training for driving, weapons and defensive tactics. 

The change, Livingston said, could increase the number of officers that graduate from the state academy every year. That would particularly help growing regions of the state like Charleston that need more officers to police a swelling population. 

Currently, around 850 to 900 newly minted officers graduate from the state academy every year. But that's not enough to keep pace with the demand. Last year, the average wait for classroom openings exceeded three months.

If Trident's proposal worked, Livingston said, the model could be expanded to every one of the state's 16 technical colleges. 

"The academy is the filter and the filter is small," said Livingston, a former Mount Pleasant police officer. "Again, this is no castigation whatsoever on the academy. We get it."

"We can't keep doing the same thing and expecting different results," he added. 

North Charleston police officials showed up to support the plan, as did some of their regional counterparts, but the 11-member state training council remained opposed to outsourcing any law enforcement training in the state. Earlier this year, a pitch by Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds to open a police-run training facility received a tepid response as well, though the council didn't vote on that proposal. Similar proposals in years past also got swatted down.

"I think more study needs to be done," Newberry Sheriff Lee Foster said of Trident's plan. 

State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel, who leads the council, said he's concerned about allowing colleges to take over part of the curriculum for new police officers in the state. Even more, he's worried the technical colleges would compete with the state academy for money at the state level in the future. 

The training academy is largely funded by fines and fees from traffic tickets in the state. But that revenue has dropped significantly in recent years, falling from about $9.2 million in 2008 to $6.2 million last year.

Keel believes the funding model is the main problem and he's pushed the Legislature to change it. But money often comes up short in the Statehouse, where lawmakers haggle every year over what gets funded in the state's $9 billion budget. 

"We're trying to do everything we can, and we have tried every year at the Legislature to get additional funding for the academy," Keel said. "Fines and fees are not the way to fund this police academy." 

Opening up a new training opportunities through Trident Tech, Livingston argued, would be a cheaper solution to adding more instructors and building additional facilities in Columbia.

People could enroll at Trident, he said, and apply for scholarships for the up to $3,832 in tuition that it would cost for the courses. 

Members of the council, however, questioned whether people were willing to pay that price to become a police officer. Foster, the Newberry sheriff, also suggested people wouldn't know how to apply for scholarships or federal student aid. 

"You have to be a Philadelphia lawyer to fill that out," he said. 

Several city and county officials in the Lowcountry, Livingston said, were even considering paying the tuition for new officers with public funds. Anything to get more cars on the street and officers on patrol.

Council members said it would be fine for growing areas like Charleston. But they are concerned giving up their monopoly on training would hurt rural police departments and sheriff's offices that don't have the money to pay for the college courses.

Livingston explained the technical college would only supplement the work of the academy, not replace it. But it didn't work. 

"We're just offering this up as a blueprint. Listen, I know change is hard," he said. "I don't mean for this to be adversarial. We are simply offering this up. You may not agree with it. You may have some concerns over the logistics. All that is valid. But you can't deny the basic premise." 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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