LHISD takes first step to create police department

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

After nearly a year of on-and-off discussions of how to best provide security and a police presence on its campuses, Liberty Hill ISD has chosen to create its own police department.

The Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution Monday calling for the creation of a department, which is the first step in the process. Once the Board approves its minutes from Monday’s meeting on Feb. 18, the district will be able to begin its search for a Director of Security who will then – working through Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) – focus on establishing the department.

Once the department is legally established by TCOLE, the Director of Security becomes the department chief.

“The work begins now,” Assistant Superintendent Chad Pirtle said. “The work begins with hiring that director of security who will be more familiar with the law enforcement stuff, which is getting together your policies, your memorandums of understanding.”

Pirtle said he hoped to have the department established by the end of the school year, but there was no definitive timetable. Initially, the plan is to have a department with a chief and an officer, and Superintendent Steve Snell indicated he’d like to see four total in the department.

“I really think (the director of security) should be involved in the planning,” Pirtle said of the eventual staffing. “In the budget there is money in there – if we started today – for a police chief and a police officer to get us through August. We could outfit both of them fully.”

The budget for creating the department is $250,000 – with $150,000 of that coming as a one-time contribution from the City of Liberty Hill. The annual budget going forward for the new department will not be determined until the district addresses its budget in the summer.

The costs covered by the initial funds include salaries, uniforms, duty gear, equipment, vehicles, electronics and communications, property and evidence space, dispatch services and other miscellaneous costs.

“There are still decisions to be made on all of these things,” Pirtle said. “These are the things we’ve outlined in the budget so far. With what we have budgeted, and with the City’s contribution to get this off the ground, we can do this well.”

Making sure everything is in place and set up for long-term success is Pirtle’s focus now.

“Every person I’ve talked to has said if you are going to do it, do it right,” he said. “I’d rather go slow and be great than go really fast and not be good at all and have to fix it along the way.”

Pirtle credited Hutto ISD and its police chief with helping Liberty Hill ISD understand the process and what is required to create a police department.

“I met with him last spring break and he has been so extremely helpful to me,” Pirtle said of working with Chief William Edwards in Hutto. “He has experience in what I am doing right now and he gave me his budget and his numbers and it has been such a great template to work off of. I’m really thankful for his guidance through this also.”

In addition to all of the nuts and bolts of creating a police department, Pirtle said a lot of thought has gone into what the focus of the district’s law enforcement presence will be.

“We have had discussions on what we want from a police department,” he said. “When we were looking at the differences in SROs (school resource officers) and police departments, we knew our priority is safety and security of our kids, staff and our campuses. What the police department does is it gives us more control over where we are doing our policing.”

While it will have many functions, in the end, it is law enforcement.

“We want it to be a lot about education, whatever the topic is as needs arise,” Pirtle said. “We want there to be relationships with our kids and our staff, but there has to be an understanding that our police department is a police department.”

Day-to-day discipline is an area Pirtle said the district doesn’t want its police department involved.

“A pretty clear boundary we have talked about is in your regular day-to-day discipline,” he said. “That’s not police department stuff and not where we want our department focusing. It’s kind of like now. We handle discipline and if something happens on the campus that is more than that we call the police.”

One of the key driving factors for this decision was campus safety from outside threats, and the department will not only provide increased security, but will help evaluate and improve other security measures.

“They are going to really be able to have a more consistent focused eye on the general safety and what we can do better on the campus,” Pirtle said. “We do a safety audit every three years and they will be a huge part of that, and probably take on the majority of leading that audit process.”

In the end, the education, relationships and security should be the predominant focus for the department.

“I really see the law enforcement piece of this being a very small part of it,” Pirtle said.

The school district considered a variety of options, including a partnership with the City of Liberty Hill for school resource officers, but the original plan lost steam through last summer with unanswered questions on both sides. Discussions did not pick up again until Pirtle, and then Superintendent Dr. Rob Hart met with City Administrator Greg Boatright and Council Members Ron Rhea and Liz Rundzieher on Nov. 2 to discuss the options for a partnership.

“I’m really proud the City chose to help and contribute,” Pirtle said. “It shows their partnership and shows the school district and the city coming together.”

There are nearly 200 school districts in Texas that have their own police department, including Bastrop ISD, Austin ISD, and Hutto ISD. Round Rock ISD is in the process of creating its own department.

Pirtle said the existing strong relationship with local law enforcement, and their pledge to support the district’s plan, will also help.

“I believe we have a great relationship with the Liberty Hill Police Department and Williamson County Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “They have been wonderful to work with and partner with when a situation arises on our campuses.”

After almost a year of research and discussions, Pirtle is confident this decision is what’s best long term for the district.

“I’m very happy that we’re going with a police department,” he said. “I think this is the solution to having great safety and security and law enforcement in our schools. We will be able to grow that and develop our people here. A lot of decisions have to be made, and we’re going to do it right, but we’re going to have a great police department.”

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