Al Cannon

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, left, testifies before a House budget subcommittee on Wednesday, Jan. 16. Cannon is one of several law enforcement officials who wants the state to end its reliance on traffic ticket fines and fees to fund the Criminal Justice Academy. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Funding for South Carolina's police training academy, where thousands of aspiring cops go to learn the tools of the trade, mostly comes from traffic ticket fines and fees.

But revenue from traffic tickets has declined in recent years as law enforcement agencies transition towards "community-oriented policing," which has them responding to more low-level calls and spending less time on the streets to punish reckless drivers.

That has prompted sheriffs and local police chiefs from around the state to ask the Legislature to fund the academy directly out of the state's general fund budget to ensure a stable stream of money they say will allow them to improve training efforts.

In fiscal year 2008, the state collected about $9.2 million from traffic ticket fines and fees, according to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy. But that total has declined almost every year since then and amounted to just $6.2 million in 2018 — a 33 percent decrease in a decade.

The revenue from those fines and fees currently goes towards more than a dozen state agencies. About 61 percent of the Criminal Justice Academy's funding comes from that pot.

At a recent budget panel hearing in the S.C. House, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon testified he believes the state should decouple the connection between traffic tickets and academy funding, rather than try to increase the ticket revenue.

“The thought of putting out a memo to ask my people to increase the number of tickets that they write because it funds the academy, I think it’s abominable," Cannon said.

Fostering an effective training academy is essential to insuring that new police officers are well-equipped to handle the challenges they face on the job, police chiefs told the panel, and it can help to prevent some of the high-profile clashes between police and citizens that have arisen in recent years. 

On the heels of the 2015 shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston, the city's police chief Reggie Burgess told the panel that many of his officers "backed off" and felt uncomfortable, leading to a decline in tickets.

But he said improving the academy to produce better-trained officers could be exactly what is needed to rectify the problem.

"When we get into those communities, we are actually writing tickets and enforcing the law," Burgess said. "The only way that we can do that is through that academy."

Gov. Henry McMaster proposed weaning the academy off of fees and fines revenue and giving it $9.7 million in recurring general budget funds in his executive budget, which he said would enhance "transparency and accountability in the process."

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"We should no longer fund state government off the backs of fees and fines, nor should we gamble with the lives of South Carolinians based on ticket revenue," McMaster wrote in his budget statement. 

Cherokee County Sheriff Steve Mueller argued that police are working just as hard today as they have in years past. The issue, he said, stems more from the other responsibilities that they now have to handle and tickets getting overturned or reduced in court.

"When I started, on a Friday or Saturday night I could put five people in jail for DUI because I could go make that arrest, do my paperwork, back out on the streets and get another one," Mueller said. "Now our guys finish two, three, four hours of just paperwork and preparation for that one DUI arrest. That's less time on the streets."

While the sheriffs may view the budget today as a more stable funding stream, state Rep. Philip Lowe cautioned that the situation could change if the economy were to enter another recession.

"I don't want to say we should be completely living off of fines and fees," said Lowe, R-Florence, who chairs the law enforcement budget panel. "But if if we're not writing those tickets that generate that, our roads are getting less safe and we have less money, too. Where does that end?"

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.