A backlog of law enforcement candidates and the attrition rate at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy keep small police departments scrambling for certified officers.
That need prompted the creation of the Pre-Police Academy, a new two-level certificate program at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. It was designed to introduce potential police officers to the requirements and responsibilities of law enforcement officers before proceeding to the Academy in Columbia.
The TCL program is the first of its kind in the state.
Two similar programs are gearing up, one at Northeastern Technical College in Bennettsville and one in Georgetown County.
Lewis "Jackie" Swindler, director of the CJA, spoke at the June 19 ribbon cutting at TCL's Beaufort Campus. "This program will not replace the academy but will better prepare students who think they want to be police officers before they go to the Academy," he said.
Each 12-week class starts with 70 "coveted slots," Swindler said. With most classes losing 15 to 20 students, a program like TCL's will either help candidates be successful or change their minds about pursuing a law enforcement career.
While students are responsible for their own tuition, their training at CJA is paid for by court fees, fines and the state budget.
Though the course is based on the Beaufort Campus, "we are working with all municipalities to create a program to fit their needs," said Leigh Copeland, TCL's vice president of public relations,
"Having an education in law enforcement will help in the hiring process. It shows dedication on the applicant's part and will ease the training process," Chandler said. "By partnering with local agencies, the new program will open up a recruitment pool that will allow local agencies to hire individuals that are local and show a desire to become police officers."
He also feels working with local agencies will enhance the TCL program.
"By collaborating with local agencies, students will get a true feel for what area agencies believe in and how they police," the interim chief said.
TCL Pre-Police Academy students get a blend of training and academics, according to Michael Ricks, a criminal justice instructor in the Business Technologies Department at TCL.
"They're going to have to do the academic option so we're going to talk about theories and research. Then we have the crisis intervention where they may have to respond to a crisis call - a domestic, someone needing some advice - and get them thinking about how to handle those types of situations," said Ricks.
Two of the most difficult areas of study at the academy are the criminal law and constitutional law classes, he said. Criminal law will be addressed in the pre-police basic course and constitutional law is listed as a topic in the advanced program.
The advanced course will include not only constitutional law but an in-depth program on defensive driving and police pursuits. As part of the program, students will train on an academy-approved driving course in actual police vehicles retired by the Beaufort Police Department and donated to TCL.
"Training is the foundation of this profession but at the same time, hands-on experience is the absolute fact-finding of whether a person can handle this job or not," said Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
Tanner said it is important that academic knowledge gained in the classroom be applied to real-life situations, such as the Fourth Amendment concerning search and seizure.
"Students have a success rate of learning academically but the real understanding is when you have applied it and done it," he said. "When you take them out of the academy put them on the street and put them on real life calls, it's night and day from a training syllabus. You really don't know if they're going to be able to handle this job until you put them on the street."
Ricks, who has more than 20 years of police experience, including as chief of police in Tuskegee, Ala., and Moss Point, Miss., said students will be faced with a number of situations requiring critical thinking, including a "shoot or don't shoot" scenario using the school's new VirTra (V-100) firearms simulation system.
Donated by Palmetto Electric Cooperative through a $50,000 Operation Round Up grant, the V-100 uses no ammo or paper targets, but uses real Glock 9mm handguns that work off air compression.
"That is very, very important that in our training we teach you out of a book but then we take you out in the field and you apply what you've learned in the classroom," Tanner said. "I think Mr. Ricks is on the right path of doing that, for example, using the new technology with the shoot-don't shot problem solving approach."
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.