They can’t carry a gun. They can’t make arrests. Charleston’s Community Service Officers can do little more than wait for a tow truck or respond to harmless complaint calls. They’re another set of eyes and ears in the neighborhood, but when a true police presence is needed, they’ve got to call someone else. They’ll be full officers one day — but a logjam at the state’s only police academy is leaving local Police Chief Greg Mullen at a loss regarding exactly when that will be.
Mullen will be presenting a request to the state’s Law Enforcement Training Council on Jan. 24, requesting a regional training academy in the Lowcountry. A local hub would provide fresh slots for the region’s growing number of officers-in-training. It would also free up the spaces currently taken by Charleston area cadets at the state police academy in Columbia — spots which could be filled by other departments facing shortages.
“There’s a lot of demand for new officers,” Mullen says. “You’ve got officers who are leaving and going to federal jobs or private contractors. Turnover and growth has really put a demand on basic training for law enforcement.”
When Mullen first arrived in Charleston in late 2006, the department would wait to hire new officers until the space opened at the training academy. With only five slots every nine weeks, he found himself losing top candidates to other departments who could get them into training immediately. So he began hiring them and putting them on minimal tasks, like collecting contact information for businesses and waiting for tow trucks with disabled vehicles, until slots opened at the academy.
The problem is that the number of slots have remained stagnant for years while demand increases. Under the best of circumstances, Mullen says replacing a lost officer takes about six months of hiring hurdles, basic training, and field exercises. As it stands, he’s got officers he’s already hired who may not enter the academy until August, meaning they won’t be ready for the beat until early next year. And this is January.
“The communities are the ones who are suffering,” Mullen says. “They’re the ones who don’t have the law enforcement officers out there doing the job they’re supposed to do, simply because the state doesn’t have the capacity to meet the need.”
Departments from throughout Charleston and Dorchester counties met late last year to discuss the problem and agreed, provisionally, that a regional academy could be a solution. Cost estimates haven’t been determined, but could likely be kept to a minimum by borrowing existing buildings and classrooms and eliminating the need for the dorm space by sending trainees home at the end of the day. To retain uniformity in the state, the regional academy would work under the Central Academy, using the same certification process with instructors trained in Columbia.
This isn’t the first time that local law enforcement has tried to come up with a solution. Sheriff Al Cannon and other local chiefs pressed for a regional academy a few years ago, and Upstate departments once floated a plan for area colleges to assist in training. Nothing stuck.
“This isn’t new,” Mullen concedes. “But I think the state is in a critical situation in terms of the number of law enforcement vacancies out there that can’t be met by the current academy.”
The state recognizes the squeeze felt by local law enforcement, says William Neil, executive director of the Centralized Academy, but recommendations he’ll make to the state’s Training Council on Jan. 24 will not include Mullen’s proposal for regional training. He says having the entire program at one location provides consistency.
“Everybody gets the same training,” Neil says.
There are long-term plans for growing the campus with new dorms and classroom space, but those efforts won’t bear fruit for at least three years.
Short-term changes Neil will be bringing to the council lead off with modifying the academy’s failure policy, which currently allows failing students to get first dibs at slots in the next class, potentially delaying the placement of quality candidates. The council will also consider aptitude and physical exams prior to placement to ensure they’re prepared for the program.
“We think that will reduce the number of failures and recycles,” Neil says.
The state could also streamline registration and change from three to four the number of years allowed for new hires who have been certified in other states to avoid the full nine-week program.
Night classes are also an option and the Training Council will consider lumping larger departments like Charleston into a few dedicated classes each year. That way, those departments would know when the spots were available in Columbia and could narrow their recruitment to the months leading up to those set academy dates.
Mullen has no problem with different ideas, as long as they’re implemented sooner rather than later.
“Other alternatives are fine with me,” he says. “But we’ve been talking about this problem for months and little has happened.”
While he’s focused on shortening the wait, Neil says that delays between signing officers and getting them through the academy are to be expected even in the best of circumstances.
Savannah has a regional academy that not only meets the needs of local departments, but also trains individuals who are putting themselves through the training before they apply with any particular department. While Mullen is agonizing over August, Harlan Proveaux, interim training manager in Savannah, says he’s got spots to fill in April.
The allure of an available training facility just 90 minutes away has Mullen pondering the benefits of sending officers through Georgia training and then letting them go through an abbreviated, three-week course offered to officers certified from outside South Carolina. It would be a clever way to work around the system, but Mullen says he’d rather find a solution that benefits other South Carolina departments feeling the same pinch.
“We’re the largest department in the state. If I have 10 vacancies I can get by,” he says. “But if I’m a small department out there with 10 officers and I’ve got three vacancies, that community is really being impacted.”