Officer Euel Thomas Smith was gunned down in broad daylight on April 22, 1983, in front of hundreds of witnesses, many of them children. His death, like every line-of-duty death, was tragic. He died trying to make us all a little safer. More specifically, he died so the children in his community could be safer.
Officer Smith was a police officer serving with the Bibb County Public School Police Department in Macon, Ga. He died trying to make the school I had attended, and the school my son would later attend, a safer place in which to learn.
While you might not think of them as the first line of defense against terrorists or murderers, school resource officers (SROs) serve an important function in the community. And they are often the first ones to come to the rescue in crisis situations on campus. While school resource officer programs have become fairly common in many areas of the country, there are numerous communities where they have yet to be established. In some instances, lack of funding has been a roadblock, while in others, political hurdles or simple ignorance of the need for such a program in area schools has been a problem.
For those communities dedicated to the creation of a new program or desiring to improve an existing program, there are a few pointers that have proven to be valuable.
What purpose do school resource officers serve and why are they relevant to other officers in more traditional roles? SROs keep the community safe and help other police officers do their jobs.
Surveys among parents and students continually rank school safety as their most pressing concern, but because many communities are choosing to direct money and resources to other concerns, we are experiencing nothing short of a crisis in the confidence of school and police officials who protect our youth. As educational systems shape and define any nation, school safety has a major impact on us all. Whenever communities fail to protect their schools, school and law enforcement officials lose a significant amount of the trust, respect, and support of the public they serve.
The Flint (Mich.) Police Department led the way when it first assigned police officers to the city's schools in 1957, but the vast majority of communities in this and other countries were slower to respond to the dangers present in schools. Some regions are still reluctant to assign officers to this critical assignment. Intensive media coverage following a 1997 school shooting in Pearl, Miss., began to make the general public aware of the types of high-level violence that had been occurring in our schools for decades. By the time the catastrophic Columbine High School shooting occurred in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, our nation was frenzied with concern over the safety of our children.
People began looking at proven school safety strategies of every type. School Resource Officer (SRO) programs around the country, particularly in Texas, California, Florida, and Georgia, had demonstrated considerable success in reducing violence. School resource officers had even successfully thwarted a number of planned school shootings and bombings. Organizations like the National Association of School Resource Officers were working to promote professionalism in the specialized field of school law enforcement as many officers began to realize the SRO's role was a particularly challenging and important one.
Making the Grade
But the level of training and monetary resources available to SROs varies widely from state to state, as does the structure within which SROs work. While some operate their own police departments, others are members of a city department assigned to a local school.
One of the first questions to be answered when organizing a new SRO program is whether it will be best for the school system to contract for personnel through one or more local agencies, to form their own independent school system police force, or to utilize a combination of the two. Having assisted hundreds of school law enforcement programs around the nation get off the ground, I have found that the answer to this important question should be based on local needs and, unfortunately, on the political climate.
Some of the finest SRO operations can be found in school district police forces while many other equally excellent programs are school resource officer programs staffed by municipal and county law enforcement officers. While there are numerous exceptions, generally speaking, it is best to create an independent school district police force for larger school systems and to utilize personnel from existing agencies for smaller and mid-sized districts.
The development of a school district police department is often more cost efficient for larger districts and also typically affords a chance for officers to work in and with schools for longer periods of time. The utilization of city and/or county officers often requires less start-up capital and can provide smoother communication between school resource officers and officers in other assignments. When local law enforcement agencies provide officers to form a school policing unit, a formal contract and a memorandum of understanding will be required to ensure funding and to spell out key aspects of how officers will operate. For example, a clear understanding of when arrests will be made should be determined before assigning officers to campuses. Commitment from local leaders, the selection of a top flight unit leader, and clear goals for the unit, along with proper screening, selection, and training of officers, have more to do with success than which approach is utilized.
While many outside the world of the SRO still do not realize it, school-based officers in some areas are among the most highly trained, best equipped, and, in some instances, most highly paid officers in their region. Georgia is an example of such an area.
An examination of training records in Georgia's Bibb County Public School Police Department in 1999 reveals that district officers received an average of more than 10 months of academy training. Competitive salaries are often provided to reduce turnover and keep talented officers in place who are familiar with students, faculty, and how schools operate. In fact, four of the agencies in Georgia with the highest entry-level salaries are school district police departments, with one district police force starting officers at about $60,000 per year. Almost every school district in the state has an SRO program and many communities place a high value on the protection of their children as demonstrated by the level of fiscal support for their SRO programs.
Not every school resource officer program is so lucky. Those that are make full use of the funds and community support they receive.[PAGEBREAK]
Without a doubt, superb leadership is a must for a superb school resource officer program. One of the best SRO programs in the nation was quickly gutted when its chief of police was replaced by an individual who lacked an understanding of leadership in this unusual environment. By trying to run the SRO department as he would a traditional police department, he ran the agency into the ground in less than a year. Conversely, properly selected leaders have helped build and maintain incredibly effective SRO programs around the nation.
The ideal person to lead an SRO program has an excellent understanding of how schools operate, is willing to guide law enforcement services that are significantly different than traditional police roles, and has a great deal of patience combined with exceptional interpersonal communication skills. Above all else, this role requires a team player who can work effectively with a wide range of disciplines including education, mental health, emergency management, public health, and court officials.
Officers who have a keen desire to make a difference in the lives of children are crucial to program success. SROs must have an advanced understanding of issues relating to child development, search and seizure, legal restrictions on sharing of information, and emergency preparedness measures. In addition, SROs must be able to interact closely with school and mental health professionals as they seek preventive and proactive solutions to a wide array of problems.
Training and Duties
All SROs should receive quality training in a variety of topical areas to prepare them for their unique role. Training should include instruction in the duties of school resource officers, school search and seizure, multidisciplinary threat assessment, school emergency operations planning, how to conduct tactical site surveys, crime prevention through environmental design, bullying prevention, crisis response and recovery, child development, and the operation of security equipment used in the district.
Like police officers in a number of other countries, the role of the SRO is far more focused on prevention than the typical police assignment. This often requires officers to perform functions that are typically thought of as security work. Many SROs conduct entry point or random metal detection, work fixed posts during specific times, and perform other duties that are new to most police officers. While these duties may not seem glamorous to many officers, they have prevented countless violent assaults and deaths in schools. Keep in mind what duties your SRO unit will be charged with so you can create the type of program best suited to your community. Departments across the country benefit from SRO assistance for a wide range of tasks. The idea of making SROs available to supplement local agencies is also a good way to convince your chief and the local community to create an SRO program at your department.
Chief Russell Bentley of the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School Police Department in says his department's SROs are invaluable as conduits between police services and the school community. Whether a separate school district police force like his unit or a team within a local police agency, SRO programs can ensure a smooth flow of critical information to and from the larger police community and among students, staff, and parents. They can also create a stronger bond among all parties.
Bentley knows of what he speaks. The most widely known and modeled SRO program in the nation, his department's techniques are now in use in most SRO programs in the United States as well as in more than 20 other nations. When many Bibb County students were agitated following an incident of police brutality involving another law enforcement agency, Bibb School Police officers went from classroom to classroom talking with thousands of students in an effort to help avert violence in the community. By showing genuine concern for their well being they hoped to make the students understand that cops are the good guys.
Lt. Don Fountain with the Okaloosa County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office has found that this kind of approach works. He has seen the results as the president of the Florida Association of School Resource Officers and through actively working in his agency's SRO unit for more than eight years. He has found a well-run SRO unit can help build a strong rapport with students and the community, which can correct misperceptions about the agency and repair strained relations.
But school resource officers don't just sit on the sidelines and offer comforting words. They take an active role in keeping schools safe, even taking on other agencies' duties when necessary.[PAGEBREAK]
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.
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.