Coronavirus has stalled police training and hiring in South Carolina

Daniel J. Gross
Greenville News

A temporary shutdown of the state's police training academy has left a backlog of men and women who are working in law enforcement but not yet fully certified.

The halt prompted by COVID-19 has left holes in some Upstate law enforcement agencies while newly hired officers wait in line to complete their formal instruction.

The state Criminal Justice Academy, which shut down in March when the novel coronavirus was first confirmed in South Carolina, reopened Sunday for a new, albeit smaller class under specific guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The delayed training and resultant absences from patrol shifts come amid heightened scrutiny of law enforcement.

Brian Bennett, an instructor at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, goes over the results of a scenario training exercise with officers on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018.

Existing officers are shifting their duties and working overtime to fill gaps until new hires are properly trained — all while protests over police brutality and racial injustice have come across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

In South Carolina, the Criminal Justice Academy trains and certifies all law enforcement personnel. Per state law, new hires to law enforcement agencies can legally start working patrol duties — without having completed their academy training — as long as they pass a firearms course. They have up to a year from their hire date to fulfill their 12 weeks of academy training, but some agencies limit the functions of new recruits until they complete their academy education.

An academy class that was in the middle of instruction when the coronavirus hit was brought back to the Columbia facility in May to finish their education. The class that began training Sunday was the first new class to come to the academy since the March shutdown.

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Certification of new recruits involves four weeks of "pre-academy" classes taken remotely followed by eight weeks of hands-on classroom instruction at the academy in Columbia. The facility also conducts in-service training for existing officers to maintain their credentials and keep up proficiency for things like firearms handling and driving.

Twenty deputies with the Greenville County Sheriff's Office are awaiting an opportunity to go through the academy's training. They've already been hired and are working but are limited to supporting tasks, said Lt. Ryan Flood. Last week, the new recruits awaiting academy classes set up targets for deputies to shoot at the training center and helped out in supply and evidence rooms.

"It's a ripple effect. It affects every agency," Flood said. "If you do have a vacancies and you already had people waiting, that's another position left vacant."

State academy director Jackie Swindler said in the wake of Floyd's death, who died while a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck, academy staff are bolstering training sessions and instructional videos on deescalation tactics, policing bias, communication skills, and pride and prejudice issues.

"We're looking to see if we need to add anything to that," he said of the 42 hours of training already built in on those subjects. "And we're putting more and more emphasis on doing the right thing and the duty to intervene and what the responsibility is of other officers."

Sheriff and police vacancies remain across Greenville County, SC

The Sheriff's Office is already dealing with an additional 20 vacancies, forcing the agency to shift resources, Flood said.

"When stuff like that happens, we have to address the allocation of manpower so calls for service are not compromised," he said. "Sometimes we have to take deputies from other units to help supplement manpower. We'll have to do that to ensure calls are being answered."

Flood said the threat to the safety of the community is not compromised since agencies plan for such situations by shifting more officers into patrol roles to ensure all calls for service are answered promptly.

The Greenville Police Department has six officers still waiting to go to the academy. One officer was in a mandatory two-week quarantine phase in preparation for the academy class that began Sunday. The Police Department has three additional officer vacancies now, said Lt. Alia Paramore, an agency spokesperson.

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New hires awaiting their remaining instruction at the academy are able to go on ride-alongs with other Greenville police officers, but are not allowed to conduct patrols on their own, said Sgt. Jonathan Bragg.

Five officers with the Greer Police Department are awaiting the academy's reopening, said Lt. Patrick Fortenberry, a spokesperson. There are an additional three vacant patrol officer positions, he said.

Greer only uses newly hired officers for administrative functions or in-house training while they await their time to attend the academy, said Fortenberry. The agency does not allow them to handle patrol duties.

And another five new officers with the Simpsonville Police Department are waiting for their time to get into the academy, said Justin Campbell, a spokesperson for the city of Simpsonville. New hires in Simpsonville are also not allowed to conduct patrols or other law enforcement actions other than training and administrative work, Campbell said.

Elsewhere in South Carolina, agencies are also dealing with backlogs and vacancies.

The Richland County Sheriff's Department has 23 deputies in the queue for the next available academy class, said Capt. Maria Yturria, a spokesperson for the agency.

At the Charleston County Sheriff's Office, four came to the academy that started July 5. One more deputy is still awaiting the next opportunity, said Karli Maratea, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office. The agency has an additional 11 vacant positions.

The Charleston Police Department has seven officers planning to go to the academy Aug. 2, after being initially scheduled for April 19 before the pandemic. Seventeen Charleston city officers are in pre-academy classes now and a date for their training in Columbia has not yet been set, said Charles Francis, a spokesman for the agency. He said new officers are not allowed to conduct patrol duties until their academy completion.

The agency also has 61 vacancies though five new hires are joining the department in the next few weeks, Francis said.

Statewide, about 300 officers are awaiting their opportunity to get into classes at the academy, Swindler said.

The new class in July includes 27 officers from various departments, a smaller class size than the roughly 50 ordinarily.

Those coming to the academy will be given temperature checks and asked if they have had any contact with others since they're asked to self-quarantine either at home or at their law enforcement agency for two weeks before starting classes, Swindler said.

If an officer shows up and explains that they've been exposed to others during their required quarantine phase, they may be asked to leave and have to re-schedule their training, Swindler said.

While the academy was shut down, the academy had granted waivers to those needed to re-certify a skill set. So if someone's driving or firearms certification period was coming to an end, they were granted a roughly two month extension time to make up for the time lost from the academy's closure, Swindler said.

Some sheriffs of law enforcement agencies around the state had asked the academy for an extension of the waiver period, but the requests were declined since the academy has reopened, according to minutes from the Law Enforcement Training Council's May meeting, obtained by The Greenville News.

Law enforcement recruits adhere to new requirements at academy

The academy's new way of operating resembles changes made at other institutions since the pandemic hit.

Recruits are wearing masks during classroom instruction. They're stationed six feet apart. They go into the academy's cafeteria to eat 10 at a time. Rather than two recruits to a dorm room, the academy is now putting recruits in their own rooms so they share only a bathroom with one suite mate. That same suite mate is also designated as their partner for defensive tactics training and other hands-on exercises.

Classroom sanitation is done regularly, Swindler said.

"The only factor I can’t control is what they do away from here," he said. "We had a couple come take their temperatures and find out if they've been places, and we had to send them back because it certainly could be potential for someone to get infected — and we just can’t allow that to happen."

The situation could be worse, Swindler said. While the coronavirus forced the academy to close, it also led to more officers staying in their professions for job security, rather than leaving and seeking other employment, given the pandemic's economic toll.

It also led to fewer agencies hiring and recruiting since departments have not been actively bringing in job candidates for interviews. Those factors made it so there were fewer new recruits at the academy doors waiting to get in, Swindler said.

"It will take us a little while to catch up. Obviously, if we weren’t trying to go with so much social distancing and one to a dorm room, we’d be caught up in a very short period of time," Swindler said. "Now it may take a little bit longer because we’re trying to adhere to as much of those precautions as we can. But we’re still moving forward. We’re still getting people out into the field."

Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at dgross@greenvillenews.com or on Twitter @danieljgross.