Lending a Hand
Bibb County SROs maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with city, county, state, and federal law enforcement agencies by serving subpoenas and arrest warrants for other agencies on a regular basis, an arrangement that saves time and ultimately helps the community.
"Local officers simply deliver the paperwork to our station and our officers serve them," Bentley says. "We are familiar with our students, staff, and facilities, and this allows us to rapidly serve warrants and subpoenas while saving local officers a great deal of time." Bentley's officers handle between 25,000 and 30,000 calls for service each year and make thousands of arrests, which also frees up local officers who are frequently impacted by significant personnel shortages.
Several years ago, Capt. Terry Timley of the Macon (Ga.) Police Department worked with Bibb County SROs when he served as a supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms gang unit. He found the additional help provided by Bibb School Police to be invaluable. School police officers assigned to his unit during the summer helped address increased summer gang activity caused by students being on the streets instead of in school. Often, five or six school district officers would be under his command at one time. This afforded a much needed boost of personnel for the Macon Police Department, putting SROs to work where they were needed most. The officers' close working relationship benefited the school system as well as the broader community.
Okaloosa County's Fountain has seen first-hand the value of SROs in helping to develop leads for investigators working unsolved cases.
In one instance, an SRO in Fountain's unit helped detectives recover thousands of dollars worth of stolen property and make arrests for more than 30 open burglaries. In another case, an astute SRO helped solve a particularly brutal double murder.
According to Major Phil Irish, who oversaw the investigation, "Information received via the resource officer was instrumental in solving an extraordinarily gruesome murder committed by four teenagers, some of whom later talked about their involvement to friends at school. That kind of information may not have reached us if not for the presence of a resource officer at each school." Officer Luis Ojeda with the El Paso (Texas) Independent School District Police Department also sees the role of an SRO as a valuable asset to local agencies. Having previously served with the El Paso Police Department, he has seen the situation from the perspective of both agencies. "We eliminate a lot of workload for other officers by handling thousands of calls for service, traffic accidents, and the issuance of traffic citations on and near campuses," Ojeda says.
He also feels that while city and county law enforcement officers are often more comfortable handling adult criminal cases, school police handle so many juvenile prosecutions that they become extremely adept at it. "We often handle juvenile cases for city officers and, in return, we sometimes ask them to take over a DWI case as they work them more often," he says "This is a mutually beneficial relationship that makes the local law enforcement community stronger." El Paso Independent School District K- 9 handlers are often called to assist U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents when juveniles are caught smuggling large quantities of drugs across the border.
Federal agents have limitations in prosecuting juveniles under the federal system, so they rely on local police to handle these cases. In many instances, call volume and personnel shortages for other local agencies make it practical for the district's police to help by handling the prosecution. These cases typically involve hundreds of pounds of drugs, so the SROs' necessary involvement is recognized as very important.
From a tactical standpoint, SROs around the nation have worked as liaisons between school officials and tactical team personnel to ensure officers have valuable information such as virtual tours of school facilities. SROs have also aided K-9 units by arranging the use of area schools for training sessions after hours.
School resource officers caught this registered sex offender on campus and handcuffed him before he could harm any children.
Lt. Julie Hyer of the Middle Georgia Police Academy has used SROs' services in this way. She is grateful for the use of an abandoned school to conduct crime scene training for police recruits as well as for instruction provided by school police serving as guest instructors. "Members of the Bibb County Board of Education Police Department have always been extremely helpful in making themselves and their facilities available to better our training programs," she says.
Before you start your own SRO program, research the specific legal issues pertaining to duties on school grounds. You might be surprised to learn that the laws can be more lenient in campus situations than in situations out on the street.
Under the right circumstances, SROs can search students based upon reasonable suspicion and, with appropriate signage, they can search student and non-student vehicles with only articulable suspicion. Courts have regularly upheld these and other actions that would not be within an officer's scope of authority on the street.
Careful legal research will reveal that officers assigned to work in schools have considerable additional authority when it is carefully exercised and properly documented. If and when it is decided that officers assigned to schools from a local police agency will be allowed to exercise this extended authority, the department's policy manual may need to be changed.
Regardless of the type of SRO program that is established, it is crucial that SROs become properly ingrained into the school community while maintaining close communication and coordination with the broader law enforcement community.
School resource officers are an integral part of the school scene in thousands of communities. Whether school district police officers or carefully selected members of a municipal or county law enforcement unit, they have become an important asset to officers in other assignments who understand the valuable assistance they can provide in investigations and countless other situations.
A law enforcement veteran with 20 years of experience, Michael Dorn serves as the senior consultant for public safety and emergency management with Jane's Consultancy. He has authored or co-authored 19 books on school safety.