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Editorial: SC needs to stop putting cops on the street before they're trained

Police pre academy.jpg (copy)

S.C. law allows people to work as regular police officers for up to a year before they complete training and certification. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

South Carolina has always been careless — some would say cavalier — about who it allows to strap on a badge and gun and make arrests.

Up until two years ago, the Legislature allowed bad cops to go right back out on the streets, for at least a year, if another agency was willing to hire them. And since some police agencies gave them the option of “voluntarily” resigning, and didn’t report the problem to the state, agencies often hired them without realizing what they were getting into.

Fortunately, lawmakers rewrote the law in 2018 so officers fired for misconduct can’t ever work as cops again unless the state Law Enforcement Training Council overturns the misconduct finding. And sheriffs and police chiefs can lose their own state law enforcement certification if they don’t report that a cop was let go for any of 11 causes, ranging from lying in court to “dangerous or unsafe practices involving firearms, weapons, or vehicles which indicate either a willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.”

But the law is still way too lax on the front end of a police officer’s career: It requires a bare-bones training course for new officers and allows them to serve as regular officers even before they’ve completed the training.

That can be dangerous for members of the public who come into contact with untrained officers, and it can be dangerous to the officers themselves, as we were reminded by a recent tragedy.

The Post and Courier’s Gregory Yee reports that rookie Florence Regional Airport police officer Jackson Winkeler was on patrol by himself last month when he tried to stop a car and the driver opened fire. The officer’s body was found on the ground outside his patrol car, his gun missing.

Officer Winkeler had received only the most rudimentary training when he was gunned down; he was eight days away from starting the eight-week heart of the state’s mandatory training course, where he would have received field training, listened to lectures and participated in role-playing simulations on such topics as how to approach a vehicle while minimizing risk.

We don’t know whether a trained officer would have survived the encounter that ended Officer Winkler’s life, but as Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds told Mr. Yee, allowing untrained officers on the street alone invites risk: “It’s unfair to the officer, it’s unfair to his or her colleagues, it’s unfair to the community, and it’s dangerous. It’s just insanity.”

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S.C. lawmakers allow law enforcement agencies to use untrained officers on a temporary basis because of the excessive wait times to get a seat in the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. As recently as July, the average wait was 106 days. Officials have streamlined the program so new hires can start immediately on a four-week video-based component; the wait time for the eight-week in-person training is now less than two weeks.

We share the concerns of law enforcement experts who question whether it’s smart to train new police officers via video and whether the entire 12-week course was sufficient even before it was changed. But particularly now that the wait has been reduced so much, there’s no way to justify allowing untrained officers to act like trained officers.

Under a bill introduced in the House on Wednesday, new officers who haven’t been trained and certified could work only alongside a partner who is certified. That’s a smart approach that lawmakers should waste no time in passing.

Meantime, they should keep a close eye on the effectiveness of the video training, and consider extending the length and scope of the in-person portion of the training. That could start by examining training requirements in other states, as well as the supplemental programs that Charleston and some other larger agencies in our own state have felt the need to provide for their own officers.

They should also see if it makes sense to create regional academies to make training less burdensome for people who don’t live in the Midlands.

Few jobs are as dangerous as police officer. For the safety of our officers and of the public, we have an obligation to make sure they’re properly trained and prepared for that job before we put them out on the street and ask them to protect us.

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