The Right Questions About a New Cop Shop

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY JUN 9, 2018

At a time when the public fears for the safety of their own children when dropped off for class, it’s hard to discern parents’ worst fears from genuine concerns. Thus, recent debate about Sarasota County school protection traversed to some odd places.

The Sarasota County School Board plans to open its own police department dedicated to campus security, and has narrowed a search for a police chief to three. The move inspired cries of whether this government agency can manage a law enforcement agency, and how resources will be allocated to launch this venture. The latter question will be of great consequence to a school district that prides itself on staying competitive in its hiring and performance. The former serves as a political flashpoint, inflaming debate instead of illuminating it.

While student resource officers today in Sarasota County report to other law enforcement officials, it’s important to know many police jurisdictions operate here, including ones dedicated to school protection. Most realize the cities of Sarasota, Venice, North Port and Longboat Key run their own police departments, but New College of Florida and the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee also share a Campus Police. The Sarasota Bradenton International Airport has a force as well. Sarasota County already serves as home to 10 different law enforcement entities, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Uniform Crime Report.

Now, college and airport authority police deal almost exclusively in property crime, and thankfully have little experience with active shootings. But with major incidents like that, police agencies assist one another. When shootings took place at the Pulse night club in Orlando, the Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Broward County and at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland—three mass shootings in the state of Florida over less than two years—you could spot a host of police uniforms.

And police agencies don’t grow officers in secret laboratories. Yes, every agency provides training, develops procedures and sets their own standards by which professionalism will be judged. But officers move from job to job as in any field. In the state of Florida, all law enforcement officers must complete state-required training and pass a standard certification exam. Uniform requirements like a clean felony record apply to anyone applying to become a sworn officer. Many who end up wearing a badge here completed training at facilities run by the Sarasota County School Board. So stop thinking this police force will be manned by whoever fits in a uniform.

That said, there’s serious issues to consider with the School Board’s choice of direction. State Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, supported a controversial state mandate to heighten school security, but says Sarasota schools elected the most expensive way to do so, the “Cadillac plan.”

What’s that entail? District spokeswoman Tracey Beeker says the district next year will hire 21 to 24 student resource officers for elementary school, and likely still rely on other agencies to cover middle and high school. The next year, the district police plans to have 55 SROs. Maybe more important financially, the district plans to have a chief and three sergeants. At least in its first year there could be a cost savings, but the plan will still cost more than $3 million, more than the state has provided to pay for more security.

Granted, providing school security on the cheap brings its own political criticism. Sarasota could just arm non-essential staff members, the cheapest option, though  putting guns in the hands of non-officers proved one of the most contentious parts of the new legislation. It’s the low-cost plan, and one some charter schools will employ. The school could also follow Manatee County’s lead and supplement sheriff’s deputies with private, non-sworn security.

The real challenge in the option Sarasota chose will not be professionalism of officers but creation of bureaucracy. A chief will report to a public safety director as Sarasota’s police chief answers to the city manager. But the mid-level management costs are something Sarasota district leaders must address before moving forward. Fear-mongering won’t produce answers.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ Media Group

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