Law enforcement driving training in South Carolina limited by time, resources

Published: Aug. 8, 2022 at 6:00 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 8, 2022 at 7:43 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Driving comes with the territory in keeping our communities safe for law enforcement, but those tasked with that responsibility can sometimes find themselves involved in a deadly scene on the roads.

Early last month, 24-year-old Raudnesia Waring died after North Charleston police officer Jeremy Kraft hit her car while he was headed to a shooting.

Dashcam video shows the officer appeared to run through a red light at an intersection moments before.

A few months before that, Charleston County deputy Emily Pelletier was responding to a non-emergency call on Mother’s Day night when her car collided with another, killing a mother and two daughters.

Internal and external reports state she failed to stop at a stop sign and was going more than twice the speed limit before the crash with no lights on.

Pelletier was charged with three counts of reckless homicide and terminated from the sheriff’s office.

Driving training for law enforcement officers

At the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, recruits spend about one week on a closed course out of 12 weeks total in Columbia.

It is required by every officer and deputy in the state before they’re cleared for the roads.

Students learn on Ford Crown Victorias, given to the academy by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety once they are no longer in service.

Though it’s a car you most likely won’t see an officer driving on the roads nowadays, Kevin Gilliam says the skills learned are the same. Gilliam, a longtime driving instructor at the academy, teaches both practical driving techniques and laws relevant to how officers conduct themselves on the roads.

“Law enforcement officers...are allowed to do certain things in their authorized emergency vehicle, those exceptions are only applied when they’re making use of lights and sirens,” he said.

That includes parking wherever necessary. Parallel parking is one of the skills trainees are tested on.

State law does allow for law enforcement to drive through a stop sign or a red light but at a speed “necessary for safe operation.”

The academy teaches students to stop at every intersection on the course. If not, they could get an “unsatisfactory” marking. Gilliam says they cannot get more than two during their test, but they may be given another opportunity to avoid having to repeat the section.

Trainees also cannot hit any one of the almost 500 orange cones. The test varies in length, but is usually around four minutes or so.

This is because recruits are taught to drive at only 80% of their ability, which might look different on everybody.

“I preach to the students here that they need to be able to stay with themselves. Pursuits, emergency responses, they’re exciting. There’s no question about it. Very exciting. The problem is when we get so excited that we start doing things that we wouldn’t normally do,” Gilliam said.

In that time, trainees must drive in reverse, weave in and out of cones, make tight turns and say what color barrel they see along the intersections before stepping on the gas again.

Departments can also provide supplemental, agency-specific training.

The Charleston Police Department requires its new hires to undergo both classroom and practical driving courses. It also has refresher training every year.

“Like everything else. I mean, we carry a firearm, we have a taser. We have OC spray. We have a baton that we get trained in. You know, that basically has an impact on how we use it or how its operation is put into play. Our vehicles are the same way,” Sgt. Lee Mixon said.

North Charleston Police Department and the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office does as well.

The Sheriff’s Office requires new deputies to train under a field training instructor and must be cleared by a review board before they are assigned a vehicle.

The Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office does not provide additional driving training beyond what the academy does for new deputies but does have annual training.

Time, resources limit training

“We’d love for it to be a lot longer, but I understand the constraints,” Gilliam said.

The course is a “choke point” Gilliam said. They can only handle so many drivers at one time, and time is limited.

In reality, he says, the week spent behind the week is more like half a week, as there are groups that go in the morning and at lunch.

“We’re giving them the base. It’s not possible to prepare them for everything that they’re going to encounter. That could never happen,” Gilliam said. “But hopefully they’ll take it on themselves. Take the techniques that we’ve talked about, take the safety issues that we’ve talked about, leave here put those things in play, improve on them and just be as safe as they can possibly be.”

The academy can accommodate about 35 to 50 students every two weeks.

“I don’t think officers could ever receive enough training,” Mixon said. “If we could add another week of training, I think it would be that much better.”

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