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Police training in South Carolina is dangerously deficient

By Seth w. Stoughton and Geoffrey P. Alpert

Officer Jackson Winkeler was fatally shot Jan. 5 while conducting a traffic stop. Winkeler had not been trained on traffic stops. In fact, he had very limited training.

In South Carolina, someone can serve as an officer before attending the police academy. This is unacceptable. Untrained and undertrained officers simply don’t have the knowledge and skills they need to do the job right. They are more likely to endanger themselves and fellow officers, and more likely to violate the civil rights of community members. Unfortunately, the Legislature has systematically underinvested in South Carolina’s public safety infrastructure. The instructors at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy do the best they can, but they simply don’t have the time or resources to meet professional standards. Nationally, states require an average of 21-24 weeks of police training. South Carolina requires 12. That’s only 480 total hours of training, less than massage therapists (500 hours) and far less than barbers and cosmetologists (1,500 hours each).

Worse, four of those 12 weeks are limited to internet-based training. No other academy provides so much of its curriculum that way, and for good reason. Distance learning can’t effectively educate would-be officers on topics that require extensive discussion, includingFourthAmendmentrulesthat safeguard civil rights.

Limited academy training isn’t as much of a concern for the largest police agencies, the ones that have the resources to provide supplemental instruction or extensive field training. But that isn’t an option for most of the 270 police agencies in South Carolina.

The state’s police training problems are solvable. First, the Legislature needs to properly fund police training. Currently, a significant amount of academy funding comes from fines and fees. That revenue source is shrinking; agencies have learned that aggressive ticketing and zero-tolerance arrest policies are counterproductive, hurting public safety by diminishing critical community support. As a result, many agencies are more restrained than they used to be. This likely contributes to the massive 27% reduction in “fines and fees” funding from 2008 ($9.2 million) to 2017 ($6.7 million). If the Legislature is serious about protecting officers and civil rights, adequate funding for police training needs to be a priority.

Second, the state needs to increase training capacity. Even with the academy’s shortened 8-week schedule for in-person training, there is a backlog. Would-be officers are waiting for months before the academy can fit them in, and agencies often put them to work without adequate training. Increasing capacity would enable us to bring the academy up to the national average and reduce the backlog. The state should expand capacity by authorizing more academies. For context,thereare650police academies in the country; on average, there are 13 academies per state. Larger statesmayhavemore, but South Carolina is one of only a few states with a single police academy.

Some argue a central academy provides more consistent training. That’s only useful when the training is sufficient, and there are reasons to doubt the sufficiency of the quantity and quality of training as it exists. South Carolina could easily follow the lead of more than 40 other states by having the Training Council set standards for every academy. Every officer who goes to one of 24 academies in Georgia, for example, or one of 40 academies in Florida, gets the same state-mandated information. A state-certified instructor can cover the required material equally well in Greenville or Charleston as in Columbia. Additionally, they can introduce local concerns in a way that helps future officers serve their specific communities.

We don’t know if more training would have prevented Officer Winkeler’s death. We do know the costs of inadequate training are too high.

Seth W. Stoughton is an associate professor at the University of South

Carolina School of Law and a former police officer. Geoffrey P. Alpert is a professor at the University of South

Carolina College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.