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Goose Creek police. Leroy Burnell/Staff

To paraphrase an old saying, “In South Carolina we always do the right thing. We just try every conceivable alternative first.”

With that in mind, it’s time to change the way we train police officers in our state. In fact, it’s long past time.

For a profession that already faces recruitment and retention challenges, South Carolina’s Law Enforcement Training Council’s agonizingly slow Criminal Justice Academy creates an unacceptable burden in 2019. It’s a burden I’ve seen up close.

In Goose Creek, officer shortages have been a problem for decades. These shortages are expensive. They make our city less safe.

And yet many of these vacancies could be filled today. Right now, we have new, energetic, able-bodied men and women eager to begin their police careers. But they can’t do that because they are waiting … and waiting … and waiting … to receive mandatory state certification.

We spend in excess of $100,000 a year paying trainees to wait while we cover vacancies by working our existing officers overtime. These overtime hours cost additional thousands of dollars, and, worse, create physical and mental burdens on our police force.

Today, the academy graduates about 850 new officers a year, and that is simply not enough.

Every 12 months, South Carolina needs 2,000 new officers just to keep up with existing attrition, and hundreds more to fill new positions created to keep up with population growth — to say nothing of what we’ll need to fulfill ideas such as Gov. Henry McMaster’s proposal to put an officer in every school.

Also consider that about half of those 850 graduates will quickly realize that the profession is not for them. So, in a state that needs well over 2,000 new officers a year, we are producing closer to 400.

My fellow South Carolinians, that’s not a problem, that’s a crisis. But it’s a crisis with a solution.

As reported in the April 24 Post and Courier, a proposal offered by Shawn Livingston of Trident Technical College’s Criminal Justice and Homeland Security Department would decentralize the academy’s academic/classroom portion, speeding up training for hundreds of officers in the Lowcountry alone.

This proposal is most assuredly a step in the right direction. If anything, it does not go far enough. Frankly, I would favor decentralizing the entire academy. Why should folks have to move to Columbia to train for a job? Why does the state have to house students?

Still, Mr. Livingston’s proposal is a good start. It imagines a for-credit academic program that includes tuition.

Tuition could still be paid by the state, and $3,832 in tuition to a local two-year college would certainly be less expensive than hiring instructors, maintaining classrooms and housing students. Along those lines, in some states, trainees can apply to and attend the Academy without a sponsoring department. That makes sense, too.

These ideas have already been implemented in many states. In fact, virtually every other state in the country has decentralized police training.

Instead of embracing this solution, however, South Carolina’s response to this proposal has been predictable and disappointing: The issue needs more study, officials said.

More study? No, we do not need more study. We need action.

Why would the State Law Enforcement Training Council not want to decentralize the academy? Maybe it’s about maintaining power and control. Maybe some officials fear that acknowledging the need for change amounts to an admission of failure. Regardless, the council’s unwillingness to adapt and change is not only disappointing, but detrimental to the agencies charged with keeping our communities safe.

When I think about this issue, I’m reminded of another saying: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

Let’s not wait any longer to change a system that desperately needs changing.

Greg Habib is the mayor of Goose Creek.

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