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At Criminal Justice Academy, support may be coming

With the start of the first regular session of the 122nd General Assembly, state lawmakers will have a fresh opportunity to significantly improve training and recruitment of law enforcement officers in South Carolina.

The growing public attention to police activities, the tension between police and some residents, and the heavy legal expense to cities and their insurers should make a compelling case for well-reasoned reforms and additional funding. Additional funding for training at the Criminal Justice Academy is one of the Municipal Association’s advocacy initiatives for 2017.

But do state lawmakers have the information they need to recognize South Carolina’s urgent need for greater law enforcement resources?

"I believe that they are aware of the needs but not how costly that need is or where the funds will come from," said Larry McNeil, former police chief of the Bennettsville Police Department, who retired at the end of October from a 40-year career in law enforcement.

"We are all aware of the importance of training and the need, but some are not as familiar with the financial state of the Criminal Justice Academy." 

During an October meeting of city managers and administrators, CJA director Jackie Swindler, who took the helm in September after more than 40 years in law enforcement, said he is pursuing ways to support hiring and training practices for police departments across the state.

The academy is funded by fines and fees from tickets, but Swindler wants that method of funding to end and be replaced by a permanent line item in the state budget. One of the Association’s 2017 advocacy initiatives lends support to this change to CJA’s funding stream.

But Swindler has other ideas to help connect new police hires with the training they need. He is asking for state funding in order to dispatch a mobile team to go into four regions of the state to do ongoing training at local departments.

Swindler also proposes an expansion of new-officer training. Academy training for new officers will increase from 12 weeks to 15 weeks, if the Legislature approves his request. The extra weeks would include diversity training and strategies to prevent officers from putting themselves in situations where firing a gun is the only means of defense.

Swindler listed other topics he hopes the new three weeks of training will allow the academy to offer: officer positioning/posture, use of force, verbal judo, de-escalation, prejudices and biases.

Ryan Alphin, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers’ Association, said the national average for initial law enforcement training is 18 weeks, far more than South Carolina’s current 12 weeks.

Swindler also pointed to the importance of psychological tests and said he plans to seek state money to be able to reimburse police departments for the screenings they administer to job candidates.

"You do the test, send us the invoice, and we’ll pay you. I strongly encourage you to use psychological screenings," he said. "I know it’s hard on some budgets to be able to do that. It’s being asked of us throughout the county. The public is saying, ‘Please vet your officers.’"

Alphin said the CJA has been underfunded for too long, and that the revenue stream of fines and fees has steadily diminished.

"It is important that the academy be added as a line item in the budget so that it can operate as a funded state agency," he said.

"We must all do our part to support Director Swindler and his staff to secure the much needed additional funding to build upon our basic training," Alphin said. "I am optimistic that the members of the General Assembly will hear us and provide additional funding so we can produce the best and brightest police candidates."

He emphasized what’s at stake. "It is important to know that agencies should not lower their hiring standards to recruit additional candidates just to fill space. Our goal is to find high-quality candidates who want to serve the communities they live in."

Jackie Swindler, Larry McNeil and Ryan Alphin will participate in a panel discussion about hiring and training trends in local law enforcement at the Association’s Hometown Legislative Action Day on February 1, 2017.