In August, Haralson County Board of Education members agreed to start the process of creating a police department for the school system.
Superintendent Jerry Bell told the board members at the special meeting on Aug. 24, that the school system had a contract with the Haralson County Sheriff’s Office for five school resource officers.
However, this year the office was supplying four — the most the system had ever had, but still short of the request, he said. He believed that there might be an issue with the Sheriff’s Office attracting the officers.
“We researched and looked and talked to other districts,” he said. “We just feel like we would be better served if we have our own police force and our own resource officers.”
The system could offer more money, about $19 an hour to start, and better retirement benefits than other local law enforcement agencies in the area, Bell said. That might be more attractive to prospective officers, he said.
Having a school system police force could offer some advantages to the system, including officers who could travel with students to events and away games, Bell said. In addition, there have been some issues with the current resource officers questioning if they could perform the duties as the school system requested, he said.
“I think its an attractive job,” said Board member Mike Benefield.
Not only because of the salary and benefits, but also because of who they will be dealing with everyday, he said.
“The risk factor, to me, goes way down,” Benefield said.
The system would not be setting a precedent in creating its own police department. There are about 50 school police departments in the state, said Julie Bradley, director of Operations for the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, by email.
Georgia POST certifies that candidates are qualified to be hired as peace officers and in order to do so, the council will “authorize departments created by city charter, county commission action, state law, or action of another authority, to be entered into our database for tracking and other logistical purposes.”
It does not, however, have any authority to certify the departments, Bradley said.
That authority falls to the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, which hosts the certification program for the Department of Community Affairs, Georgia Municipal Association, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and the Chiefs’ Association, said Church Groover, state certification coordinator for the Chiefs’ Association.
Groover said some of the bigger Georgia school systems do have their own police departments and they have been certified through the Association including Atlanta Public Schools, Cherokee County, Cobb County and Gwinnett County school systems. But mainly colleges and technical schools are the schools that create their own police departments, he added.
Certification is voluntary, but beneficial to the departments that choose to go through the three-year process, he said.
“To borrow from the Army, they want to be the best they can be,” Groover said of the reasoning to be certified. “It’s a liability protection for not only the officers, but the department and the city or the county or whoever the government is.”
Because the policies and procedures are up-to-date and meet state standards, the staff has been well-trained and are doing what they are supposed to do, the chances of a successful lawsuit are very low, he said.
The Atlanta Police Department, at 2,400 officers, is the largest department certified by the Association, but there are some small departments with under 10 officers that are also certified, he added.
“I do have a three- and a four-man department that’s working on it,” Groover said.
The state certification process was created for the smaller law enforcement agencies who couldn’t afford the national certification program through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. The process through CALEA can cost $8,000 to $10,000 a year, he said. The state program costs $375 a year, Groover said.
A school system police force will have the same powers and authorities as any other police force in the state, Bell told the Board members. John Daniel, director of transportation and safety for the system is a certified police officer, and is eligible to serve as chief of the system police department. He would not receive any more money to act as the chief, Bell said.
Some of the advantages for the school board in having its own police force would include being able to have the number of resource officers the board wants. In addition, Bell said the resource officers would have the authority to go to events and protect the students at events and games away from campus.
The county schools contract with the Sheriff’s Office runs the system about $180,650 current contract for four officers, Bell said. It would be more expensive to hire its own officers in part because there would be one more, but also because the school system would be responsible for the entire salary and benefit package. It would cost the system about $391,380 for five school resource officers on a 230-day contract, he said. Federal funds are available for the next three to four years.
“In that time we’re going to be looking at grants and other things that are available for resource officers to get for future continuation,” Bell said. “If it doesn’t work like we think it will — and I have no reason to believe that it won’t; it has in other places — then we can always go back and work with local law enforcement agencies.”
The system would use special purpose local option sales tax revenue to purchase uniforms, vests, weapons, ammunition, vehicles — all the things the officers would need to work, Bell said.
“I’m not going to put us in a financial situation, if I can help it, where we would not be able to afford something,” Bell said in answer to the Board members questions in August.
The system has already been identified as a police force by Georgia P.O.S.T. and is waiting for its Origination Identification Agency number from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Daniel told the board members at their meeting on Tuesday.