Would more locally based training make for better police officers?

A classroom is no place to teach cops how to work crime scenes, testify in court or patrol streets, Beaufort County's sheriff says.

That's the reason P.J. Tanner's wants to start his own law enforcement training academy in Beaufort to improve the nine-week program required of all of the state's new officers and taught at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia.

Tanner appeared in June before the S.C. Law Enforcement Training Council, an 11-member panel that oversees the academy, to pitch a 26-week pilot program in Beaufort County, in which cadets would be trained by sheriff's deputies certified by the state as instructors. The panel deadlocked on the proposal and invited Tanner back in October to make a second pitch.

"I'm a big believer in practical exercise," Tanner said. "When you're in a classroom and you have someone telling you how to do it, you're not going to get it until you're doing it yourself."

At the end of his basic training program, Tanner believes, recruits will test higher than those using the academy's current nine-week training method.

He also believes he can do it at no additional cost to the state, to his department or Beaufort County.

Not everyone shares Tanner's enthusiasm.

Hubert Harrell, the Criminal Justice Academy's director, says a section of state law requires all initial law enforcement training be at the state's centralized academy. S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster concurred in an opinion he wrote to Harrell in August.

Tanner said his goal is not to replace the Criminal Justice Academy but to raise the state's standards for training law enforcement officers. He added that the academy is under-staffed and under-funded.

Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister supports Tanner's plan.

"Nine weeks of training in modern law enforcement is inadequate," McAllister said, adding that Bluffton police put new officers through months of additional training. "Prior to taking the street, I want an outstanding police officer who has been taught problem-solving, how to deal with domestic violence. Basic shooting, driving and defensive tactics is just that -- basic."

A 2007 study from the University of South Carolina found the academy's nine weeks of basic training to be the third lowest in the nation. Most states require at least 15 weeks.

Preparing public servants

Tanner's recruits go through six weeks of "rookie academy classes," conducted by Beaufort County deputies certified by the state as law enforcement instructors. Instruction includes firearm training, report writing and traffic laws, according to training information from the Sheriff's Office. Afterward, the recruit is put on the road for another seven weeks with a field training officer to apply what has been learned.

Then, the recruit is sent to Columbia for the Criminal Justice Academy's nine-week program. The Sheriff's Office sent 23 recruits to the academy in 2008 and has sent seven so far this year. The academy was founded in 1968 and serves as the main training ground for all of the state's new law enforcement officers. About 950 students graduate from the academy each year.

The academy had a budget of $22 million this year, and it is funded primarily from the proceeds of traffic fines collected by municipal and county magistrate courts across the state. Local departments pays for the cadets' uniforms and for travel to and from Columbia, but the academy pays for recruits' tuition, room and board and meals.

Once back from Columbia, Beaufort County Sheriff's Office recruits go back on the road for another four weeks before becoming full-time deputies, Tanner said.

Tanner said he has long felt that the training his officers received at home was superior to what they were receiving while gone for nine weeks in Columbia.

"It is more something that we have to do as opposed to something that our officers really benefit from," he said of the training in Columbia.

What Tanner proposes

Tanner said his school would use the Criminal Justice Academy's curriculum and lesson plans, though the major difference between the two programs would be the amount of time devoted to applying principles and concepts taught in the classroom to real-life situations.

Officers would be given a week of classroom instruction, followed by a week of practical exercise putting those lessons to use.

Only the last two weeks of the academy's current curriculum are spent on field exercise, Tanner said.

Under Tanner's proposal, recruits would be tested every two weeks on what they've learned.

Improved test scores, he said, could be used by the academy to lobby the General Assembly for additional funding for a more comprehensive basic training course.State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said Tanner's proposal deserves consideration.

"Police officer recruits in Beaufort County would receive 26 weeks' worth of instruction -- 15 more than they would receive at the state Criminal Justice Academy," said Davis, who pledged to help Tanner overcome any legislative impediments to his program. "And it's not just the increased quantity of training, it's the quality. The sheriff isn't asking for any state money -- all he wants is the right to use the academy's lesson plans."

Beaufort County Councilman Paul Sommerville said he thought Tanner's proposal shows initiative.

"I'm kind of a local guy, so I look at it like, if we can do a better job here locally than they can do at the state or federal level, then we should take a look at it," he said. "If it costs more than what we think, it could be a tough sell, but it depends on what value we're getting for the money we're spending. The quality of training for our first-responders and law enforcement is pretty darn important."

What are the odds

Attorney General Henry McMaster's opinion to Harrell, which isn't legally binding, didn't close the door entirely on Tanner's proposal. He said he thinks state law requires new officers to go through academy training, but the academy could conceivably conduct its training wherever deemed appropriate, though the legislature's intent was to create a centralized academy.

Tanner said basic training for reserve officers, constables and limited duty officers is already being done at the local level and that the only thing not handled by local agencies was the basic training course.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said he has committed assistant solicitors to Tanner's program to teach classes on legal topics, such as search and seizure and Miranda rights, should the program be approved in October.

"It's an excellent idea and I have assured (Tanner) that I will help in anyway I can with this program."

Beaufort Police Chief Matt Clancy said he would support anything that better trains law enforcement officers in South Carolina.

"Training is an ongoing, continuous and important part of being a law enforcement officer," Clancy said. "If you think you've done enough training, it's probably time to get another profession. I don't know all of the particulars of Sheriff Tanner's proposal but I'm all for as much training for officers as we can get."

Port Royal Police Chief James Cadien said only that he was "thoroughly satisfied with the academy."

What is the cost?

Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart said Tanner's undertaking could be tough to swallow for County Council if it carries substantial additional costs.

"Anything that costs more money is going to be a tough sell, unless he can demonstrate that it would result in a cost savings somewhere else," said Stewart, who also serves as the chairman of the county's public safety committee.

Tanner insists his pilot program will come at no additional cost to the county or the academy. He explained the program would be taught by the three members of the department's training division and 30 to 35 deputies who are also state-certified instructors, all of whom are already being paid by the Sheriff's Office.

Tanner said he's confident that his appearance before the Law Enforcement Training Council in October will yield positive results."I honestly don't see how they can turn me down," he said. "This is a profession that is near and dear to my heart and I want our law enforcement professionals trained as professionals."