Tanner shelves plan for academy after state panel adds weeks to instruction

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he has scrapped plans for starting his own police academy after learning that three weeks of training will be added to the state's nine-week basic law enforcement course.

Tanner went to Columbia last week to ask the S.C. Law Enforcement Training Council to approve his plan for a 26-week pilot program in Beaufort County. He said he dropped the plan after the council decided to add more training time starting next year.

"I had had hours of discussion with their staff since I proposed this program, and I was impressed that they were trying to take it one step forward," Tanner said. "This is what the state needs."

A 2007 study by the University of South Carolina showed the law enforcement academy's nine weeks of basic training to be the third-least in the nation. Most states require at least 15 weeks.

The academy's re-tooled curriculum will include more hands-on instruction, said Hubert Harrell, academy director.

"I read all of the evaluations that our students fill out and what they said, what I've long felt and what I was in full agreement with Sheriff Tanner about, was that our students learn better by doing," Harrell said. "... What we are really doing is looking at changing the way we teach."

But the academy will have to do that with little to no additional funding, he said.

"We are not anticipating any increase in our budget," Harrell said. "I've informed the legislature that we will need to hire at least seven new instructors because we're going to be doing a lot more here. The only thing we can do is make the best possible use of our resources."

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

Tanner's proposal, which he first pitched to the training council in June, was opposed by Harrell, who argued state law requires all initial law enforcement training be taught at the state's academy. S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster concurred in an opinion he wrote to Harrell in August.

Harrell said that while he still believes the state's academy is the best venue for basic law enforcement training, Tanner's proposal was insightful.

"I'm always open to any suggestion, but I think we have to maintain a standard and make the best use of the luxury that we have in South Carolina and that's a centralized police academy," Harrell said. "We know that every police officer in this state was trained the exact same way and I can testify to that in court. I can tell you how an officer was trained and who trained him.

"I never saw Sheriff Tanner's proposal as adversarial. I think it was a philosophical difference in the way officers should be trained."

Tanner said he won't hesitate to reintroduce his proposal if he thinks the academy is backsliding.

"If things don't go the way I hope they will, my proposal will be back on the table," Tanner said. "People think I'm taking this adversarial stance, and it's not adversarial. I care about the academy and want to see us do better as a state."