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In Focus: What experts think is and isn’t working to help police in South Carolina

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 8:28 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - Already challenged by low retention rates and morale, some say law enforcement agencies in South Carolina are also grappling with the need for more money for a variety of state-funded programs.

One of the programs of note is body cameras. A 2015 law mandated them across the state, but onboarding this technology was contingent on full funding from the General Assembly, something that still hasn’t happened.

RELATED COVERAGE | In Focus: South Carolina first leads, then lags with police body cameras

The South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy trains up officers across the state and is governed by the Law Enforcement Training Council, which was tasked with creating guidance for local agencies to use as a jumping-off point for their own body camera policy.

University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton has been critical about this level of guidance, saying it’s time for SCLETC to revisit it and beef it up in order to provide more insight into best practices with body cameras, based on updated research.

“I’m not suggesting that we need like one universal approach, but I am suggesting that making the most out of this piece of equipment requires a lot of thought about what benefits we want to get,” Stoughton said.

Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler said body cameras have been a critical tool and one he wishes every officer could have, and that what works for each agency is going to be individual to its community.

But he also said departments can find those best practices from other places besides his agency.

“We can do that. I’m just telling you, there’s so many sources out there, that people don’t have to wait for us to write something for them,” said Swindler. “If that’s something someone wants us to do, we can. But I’m saying that’s not what I would do. If I was the chief, I would not wait on someone to do that for me; I would already be doing that.”

The only partially-funded body camera law leaves some agencies without cameras for their officers, while transparency is demanded by the public.

“They demand that you can document what the interaction between officers is. So they expect that. But I believe if you ask most public now, they would think all officers had cameras. Just like I bet every citizen thinks every officer has a bulletproof vest,” Swindler said. “And there are still people in that in 2021 that don’t have the ability to have one. They just can’t afford one. And that that blows my mind.”

Swindler said it’s not unusual that laws be passed without enough resources to make sure it’s effective.

“I see a lot of feel-good things done throughout government, not just on a local level or state level, but a national level,” he said. “They will say, ‘I am doing this,’ but it really doesn’t meet the full needs.”

Stoughton said another way that policing can be improved is by increasing police training requirements at the academy.

The current requirement for certification is 12 weeks of training, or 480 hours. A recently published report by the U.S. Department of Justice found the national average of core basic training is 833 hours.

Swindler said state legislators asked if they could fund it, would he welcome additional weeks of training.

“Absolutely,” Swindler told them. “And I said, ‘what I would do with the first week or two that you would give us is I would add more scenario-based adult learning models.’”

But of the time that they do have the recruits, Swindler said it’s used well.

“It’s not done hastily, I promise you. They work and put a lot of hours in and then they go home and they have requirements they have to do once they get home,” Swindler said. “I find that we more than adequately train these recruits maybe a lot better than other states - I guess I can tell you, I know we do. Because we constantly have officers who come into this state from other states to be police.”

Swindler explained when some of these out-of-state officers take South Carolina’s tests, they do not do well, although they were considered well-trained in their previous state.

“So then they have to come do a lot more training with us than what you would expect an officer from another state,” Swindler said. “So I think that certainly validates that our training is is very adequate.”

Swindler said his wish list would entail opportunities for even more cutting-edge types of training, and more time to teach it.

“That’s what I would like to see - that you give them more opportunities to do decision making, to put into practice those things that they have learned,” Swindler said.

Swindler is encouraged by the fact the academy constantly writes new programs whose teachings can have a lasting impact, especially in charged situations.

“The ones that really, really get us is the testimonials where, ‘you told us in crisis communication, or de-escalation, words to say to people that changed their whole perspective. And it took them down from something that could have been a very bad ending, to a calm resolution,’” Swindler said. “So I think we’re doing some good things. And I’m seeing some good results.”

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