Resources key in campus law enforcement debate
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
When weighing the options of a school resource officer (SRO) program versus a school district police department, as Liberty Hill ISD is currently doing, experts in the field say the issue really boils down to resources.
Tom Kelley, a school safety specialist with the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University, said the policing itself is not different, and for most school districts the decision is more about logistics.
“It is usually a matter of resources and cost,” he said. “If somebody can set up their own police department and only wants one or two licensed officers, that may be a cost-effective way, but somebody who needs 20 or 30 officers may not be able to afford all that and has to contract with the sheriff’s department or municipality.”
Districts with police departments tend to be larger, according to Kelley, but that’s not always the case.
“Those typically are larger districts, but there are smaller districts that have maybe only one licensed law enforcement officer, which may be the chief of police, then they might have them supervise unarmed security officers,” he said. “Then there are others that may have 50 or 60 officers in larger districts.”
A district police department does require more resources, but also offers more control.
“There’s a lot more flexibility in having your own police department in terms of having them available for training, mentoring, getting used to promoting that culture of good law enforcement, because then your resources and assets are at your disposal, but philosophically it doesn’t really change anything,” Kelley said. “They have jurisdiction over the local operation and they’re dedicated to and answer to the school board and school officials, so you’re likely to get more customized school function, school-based law enforcement.”
Williamson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Ryle echoed those sentiments when asked about the distinctions between a SRO program and a department.
“A lot of that is financial,” Ryle said. “There’s a lot of infrastructure that goes into having your own cop shop, if you will, but there’s more than one way to conquer that. I know the Sheriff (Rob Chody) is committed to supporting that, not just with Liberty Hill, but with any school district.”
But he also believes the control issue many worry about with an SRO program versus the district’s own department is not usually as big a concern as the initial worries indicate.
“There is an advantage from the school district perspective in that you centralize control over what’s happening on the campus,” Ryle said. “When you have outside law enforcement on the campuses, what the school district feels it loses is complete control over the law enforcement agency,”
Continuity and flexibility are two factors Chief Teresa Ramon of Converse ISD said are benefits to having a district department.
“The advantage is that those officers work for the district, so not only do they develop a continuous rapport with staff, administration and community members, but it becomes tradition for students to see the same officers over time,” she said. “School resource officers are great officers, but sometimes it is not consistent because they may get transferred or moved to a different shift.”
Ramon, who is also President of the Texas School District Police Chiefs Association, said having a department of its own also allows a district to determine just how much coverage it will have, whether it wants a 24-hour department, one only working Monday through Friday or even just certain hours.
When looking at an SRO program, the lower overhead and less responsibility for logistics and training is a plus.
“The convenience of that one is you don’t have to go through the licensing and owning your own vehicles and all that, you can contract with the county or the city in terms of officers and resources,” Kelley said. “The downside to that is you may have need for officers when they don’t have officers available.”
The philosophy of the law enforcement officers on campuses should be the same for either program, though.
“I don’t think there’s as much difference as people think,” Kelley said. “If you had your own police department, you’re still not likely to use law enforcement in a different manner than you would if you were contracting. I think some people tend to make the jump that if the school district has their own police department they can make them be the behavioral specialists in the school and that’s not the case. They still should be there responding to criminal activity and not there just to respond to behavioral issues. That’s more of a school function.
“Whether they (officers) are contracted from another agency or they are with your own police department, they still should be striving for the same thing, which is being there to dissuade any criminal activity, to be able to respond to emergencies, but also to mentor and build relationships with students.”
In Ramon’s experience with the Converse ISD police department, the community likes having the department because they know they have officers in the school helping the administration make the best choices for children, with a variety of options for handling different situations she says other officers might not have.
“We tend to handle our students a little different than an officer might from the outside,” she said. “A street cop may come in and do something very different than what we do. When I say that, I don’t mean it in a bad way, it’s just that we usually have a little more patience than a street cop. Sometimes we are a counselor, administrator or even like a parent sometimes.”
Ryle, who has extensive experience in dealing with school resource officer programs while in Round Rock, and also through his position at the sheriff’s office, believes in either circumstance, finding the right personality for the job is more important than whether it is an SRO or department situation.
“That’s in the selection process of the personnel for sure,” he said. “People have to want to do that job, and we have several very successful school resource officers here that not only bridge that gap but they are also able to protect the school. It is about recruiting people into those jobs, making sure that everyone is on the same page with the job requirements and the goals of the program.”
Ramon said the general rule for determining size of a district police department is to have one officer for every 1,000 students, but as in her district, many factors play into that final decision on staffing.
Kelley said issues and environment usually are the biggest factor.
“You have to look at the dynamics of each school,” he said. “If you have a high school that’s having a lot of criminal activity, a lot of bullying, a lot of violence, that’s going to look very different in the number of officers than if you are in a more rural school, with no real history of criminal activity or a lot of problems. When you meet with local law enforcement and the community, and you get that input, then you kind of know what needs you may have. I don’t think there’s a magic number.”