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SC cops call for more funding, support to address training


Faced with high turnover, funding challenges and lack of consistent standards, South Carolina’s cops are asking state legislators for help.

Law enforcement officials from around the Palmetto State addressed the lawmakers in an hourslong hearing on Tuesday, where they laid out major challenges facing their profession. Their biggest points: A lack of consistent funding is impacting the state Criminal Justice Academy; and roadblocks are standing in the way of departments, especially smaller agencies, getting accredited.

“What we need from you guys is that academy, they need a line item in the (state) budget,” North Charleston Police Chief Reggie Burgess said. “We just need that academy to be supported. We also need to look at minimum standards.”

The hearing, of the state House of Representatives Law Enforcement Officer Training, Tactics, Standards and Accountability Subcommittee, comes as law enforcement officers around the county have grappled for years with increased scrutiny and eroded trust, especially in minority communities. Burgess and other S.C. authorities said it’s more important than ever to work together to give officers the tools they need to start restoring that trust.

In South Carolina, police departments, sheriff ’s offices and other law enforcement agencies can be accredited, either by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, also known as CALEA, or through a state accreditation process. When a department obtains that kind of status, it means it adheres to a set of best practices and professional standards that is regularly updated. But getting accredited is voluntary and many small law enforcement agencies face numerous roadblocks.

Only about 70 of the state’s roughly 300 law enforcement agencies are accredited, said Chief Mark Keel, of the State Law Enforcement Division.

Keel, who also chairs the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council, said while accreditation helps assure an agency follows best practices, the most importantthingisforsomekind of uniform, minimum standards to be developed, whether through accreditation or not. The chief said it can be very difficult for a small agency to get that kind of certification because of the time and money involved.

“But every agency needs to have policies,” Keel said. “If they’re going to be an agency, they need to have policies with regards to use of force, they need to have policies with regard to pursuits, those high-liability areas … And I’m fearful that there are some small agencies in South Carolina that don’t have those policies.”

Chief Tony Taylor of the Williamston Police Department said he believes every agency should seek to go through that process and his agency is seeking state-level accreditation.

That process involves a $200 fee as well as investing about $5,000 in a data reporting system and hiring an accreditation manager, Taylor said. Those costs have added up.

And his agency, like many other small departments, faces strong headwinds.

“We can’t compete with larger agencies,” Taylor said. “We’ll hire an officer and invest in training and equipment. … A lot of times, small departments are just a training ground for some of these guys. It evaporates a small police department’s budget.”

The chief said he understands, to a degree, the desire of young officers to be where the action is. He was like that as a young officer, as well.

But he also spoke about the impact of brain drain on his agency and recounted a story about sending a supervisor to get specialized training last year. Within weeks, that supervisor was gone, hired by another, larger agency.

Taylor asked legislators to rescind what he called a “retirement cap” that prevents retired officers from going to work for small departments like his.

The chief said he can use retired officers who possess decades of experience to bolster his department and mentor young officers.

South Carolina’s Criminal Justice Academy, which trains all law enforcement officers in the state, also faces significant challenges, authorities said.

The academy traditionally is funded through revenue generated from tickets and arrests, officials said.

But that money is drying up, Keel said. Since 2008, there’s been a 46 percent drop in that source of funding.

He and others asked legislators to consider adding funding for the academy as a recurring line item in the state’s annual budget.

“Public safety is a core function of government, and it must be fully funded,” Keel said.

Despite the challenges, the academy has made strides, said Jackie Swindler, its director.

Faced with wait lists of up to 106 days to get into the academy, authorities implemented a four-week program of virtual classes last year that brought wait times down to just 14 days, Swindler said.

Cadets now take classes over video for their first four weeks of instruction before taking a cumulative test, he said. If they pass that, they can take a physical test. If they pass that, then they’re offered a spot at the academy.