Officer's Murder Raises Questions About Letting Uncertified Officers Patrol
Columbia, SC – There are calls to change a 45-year-old state law that allows law enforcement agencies to put new recruits out on the street to work while they’re waiting to attend the state’s police academy in the wake of the death of South Carolina Public Safety Officer Jackson Winkeler.
Officer Winkeler, who was assigned to the Florence Regional Airport Police, became the first officer killed in the line of duty in 2020 just eight days before he was due to start at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy.
He was killed while conducting a traffic stop on a driver who had just committed an armed robbery.
South Carolina’s laws allow new hires to work on the police force before they’re certified, while they’re waiting for a coveted spot at the state’s police academy, The Post and Courier reported.
Although some of the larger departments in the state have extensive in-house training, for many smaller jurisdictions, this means that police officials are under pressure to utilize resources on the street while they wait to be trained at the state’s academy.
Former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon said the law was created to help out short-staffed police departments at a time when it could take months to get a slot at the criminal justice academy, WCBD reported.
The former attorney general said he thought changing the law to require officers to be certified before they’re given a gun and sent out on patrol would move easily through the legislature, WCBD reported.
“It’s been an issue in South Carolina really for decades, as far as I can remember and it’s driven by lack of resources,” Condon said. “I think this sort of proposal where you simply require certification before working as an officer, I would think would get broad bipartisan support.”
Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds told The Post and Courier that he found the state’s policy strange.
But, as a large department, Charleston police have their own in-house, 10-week, pre-academy for their recruits, something not available to smaller agencies.
“As long as I have anything to do with this police department, we will never put people out on the streets without training,” Chief Reynolds said. “It 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.”
The Charleston police chief was part of a proposal in 2019 that would have added a second criminal justice academy to the state, based in Lowcountry because of the more severe officer shortage in that area, The Post and Courier reported.
But academy officials, who already deal with massive budget shortfalls, shut down the idea and claimed consistency would be lost if the training was split into two locations.
South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler told The Post and Courier that the problem had been solved anyway because a new training system implemented in 2019 had dramatically cut wait time for new recruits.
Prior to the new system, the average time on the police academy’s waitlist was 106 days.
But in June of 2019, the academy released a four-week video training curriculum for students before they start classes in person, The Post and Courier reported.
Students who sit through the videos and pass a series of tests get assigned a slot at the eight-week criminal justice academy.
And Swindler said the average wait time has been reduced to less than two weeks, The Post and Courier reported.
“With this, you hire them today and they start training tomorrow,” the academy’s director explained. “We’re seeing a lot of wins with this program.”
Still the state’s 12-week training period falls far short of the 22-week national average, and with some of it being done on video, critics said the curriculum needed rethinking.
Geoff Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina and expert on high-risk police activities, is skeptical about using videos for unsupervised training, The Post and Courier reported.
“If you’re watching a video, you lose a lot of information,” Alpert said. “We have the same issues with online classes. Some topics work really well, but some topics, I think you need a hybrid or brick and mortar so you can discuss the issues. If they’re providing legal education through a video, we may see the consequences as these young police officers get out on the street. Hopefully, it will get picked up in field training.”
He wasn’t a fan of the current law either and called putting untrained people on the street “a recipe for disaster.”