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SC may stop placing untrained officers on regular patrols

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Jeffrey Collins
Associated Press

RALEIGH — South Carolina lawmakers are looking to end a practice that allowed police officers in the state to patrol by themselves for up to a year without training.

The idea for decades was to allow small police forces to use newly hired officers immediately after putting them on the payroll because it could take months to get a slot in the state's only police training academy in Columbia.

But the death of an untrained officer in a shooing during a traffic stop in Florence in January and the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy revamping its training program to eliminate the months long wait have four former law enforcement members writing a bill to change things.

The proposal would only allow an officer without the certification earned through 12 weeks of training to patrol or arrest someone if they are with a certified officer.

“Just because you can shoot a gun is not proper training," said Republican Rep. Eddie Tallon of Spartanburg, a retired State Law Enforcement Division agent.

The training includes instruction on the law, firearms, tactics to remain safe, strategies for keeping the peace and order and de-escalating problems.

Other sponsors of the bill said it came up after the on-duty death of Florence Regional Airport officer Jackson Winkeler in January.The26-year-old Winkeler was shot and killed during a traffic stop near airport property.

James Edward Bell of Homestead, Florida is charged with murder and armed robbery.

Officers rushing to help Winkeler found him shot outside his patrol car with an empty gun that didn't belong to him nearby and 30 shell casings on the ground. When Bell was arrested, he had the officer's gun, according to arrest warrants.

Winkeler was hired by airport police in August and had completed four weeks of video training. He was killed on Jan. 5, just a week before he was scheduled to undergo the remaining eight weeks of training at the police academy in Columbia.

In 2017, Winkeler spent three months as a police officer in the small town of Latta often working alone without training, according to his personnel records.

Winkeler left after a complaint against him by fellow officers that would end up not being verified. In his records, his police chief said Winkeler would likely be a good officer if he could get the proper training. The details of the complaint were blacked out of the Criminal Justice Academy documents,

Back in 2017,it was a nearly four month wait to get a spot for 12 weeks of training in Columbia, where officers stay in dorms.

Now the academy allows officers who complete the four weeks of video training and pass a test to get a spot in 11 days or less for the final eight weeks of training, state Criminal Justice Academy Director Jackie Swindler said.

“If you were ever going to do this, this would be the time because of what changes we made at the academy to remedy the wait," Swindler to a House subcommittee considering the bill Wednesday.

The subcommittee ran out of time to vote on the bill, but it appeared to have plenty of support to be sent to the full House Judiciary Committee.

Police chiefs of smaller departments, who might have the most to lose with one less person on patrol, back it heavily because they can explain to mayors and town councils that officers can get trained quickly, making communities safer without a drain on payroll, said Rep. Dennis Moss, a former state trooper who is sponsoring the bill.

“It not only protects the officer, it protects the public that you would know that if you are being stopped by a blue light that somebody knows what they are doing," the Republican from Gaffney said.