Tri-County Technical College's leadership saw the state’s law enforcement sector struggling to attract and retain qualified police officers — a challenge exacerbated by candidates being ill-prepared for the state’s law enforcement academy. The technical college in Pendleton then proposed a solution.
In South Carolina, prospective police officers can serve for a year before acquiring certification at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy if they pass agency requirements.
Existing officer shortages and a bottleneck at the state’s only justice academy, however, meant that some aspiring officers — all lacking the prerequisite training and some who would not qualify for certification — served on the force for longer than a year before entering the academy, according to a 2019 report from the S.C. Senate Oversight Subcommittee.
The report also cited a “considerable” attrition rate of candidates enrolled in the certification program due to their failure to meet the academic rigors of the course. About 26% of the 2018 cohort under S.C. Senate scrutiny did not graduate from the program with a certificate.
In 2019, the average 106-day backlog for waitlisted candidates prompted the academy to initiate training reforms that brought the holding period down to two weeks, according to S.C. Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, further delaying academy classes for those in line for training — a number already eclipsed by the need of officers in the field.
“I don’t know of any agency in South Carolina that’s not struggling to find and recruit officers,” Swindler said during a March 3 press conference.
Tri-County Tech reached out to the academy last year to see if anything could be done from a workforce development standpoint.
After months of brainstorming and collaboration, Tri-County Tech, the S.C. Technical College System and the S.C. Criminal Justice joined forces to forge a new law enforcement career pathway that will be covered for aspiring police officers.
The program, a 14-week certificate offered at Tri-County Tech and 15 S.C. Tech schools across the state, gives aspiring officers training before securing a position at a law enforcement agency. These officers will then become certified after passing the physical assessment, cumulative exam and eight-week training course at the SC Criminal Justice Academy.
The Lottery Tuition Assistance program and the SC-Wins scholarship will cover tuition for participants, according to a news release. During the 14-week period, candidates will learn basic and introductory law enforcement training, tactics and procedure. These four courses add up to 12 credit hours that can be applied toward the 66 credits required for an associate degree if candidates choose to continue their education.
According to Galen DeHay, president of Tri-County Technical College, the first cohort will start classes this fall at the latest.
“By increasing the education level of our officers and creating a new pathway for the profession, we can address our state’s workforce shortage and enhance the policing profession,” DeHay said during the press conference. “There are a lot of benefits for a college-educated police force. First of all, our technical colleges will prepare officers for the challenges they are going to face in a very diverse and multi-cultural community that we all serve across the state.”
DeHay cited studies showing that college-educated officers are less likely to resort to force as a first response, adding that officers may gain more creative problem-solving and leadership skills at a third-level institution.
Program participants must be U.S. citizens, pass a criminal background check, have completed a high school education or a GED and be at least 20 years old, according to DeHay.
“We are excited to partner with the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy to educate and train the next generation of law enforcement officers,” S.C. Technical College System President Tim Hardee said in a news release. “This certificate is a win, not just for the individual and law enforcement, but for our state and local communities.”
Schools launching the program include Aiken Technical College, Central Carolina Technical College, Denmark Technical College, Florence-Darlington Technical College, Greenville Technical College, Horry-Georgetown Technical College, Midlands Technical College, Northeastern Technical College, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, Piedmont Technical College, Spartanburg Community College, Technical College of the Lowcountry, Trident Technical College, Williamsburg Technical College, and York Technical College.