Pros, cons and challenges of Wake County creating a school police force

Posted by T. Keung Hui on October 28, 2013 

What do you think about the idea of the Wake County school system operating its own police force – complete with armed, sworn law enforcement officers with full arrest and investigative powers?

The idea hadn’t really been in play until Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison had pitched the idea in June while presenting the final report of the school safety task force that he had co-chaired. As noted in today’s article, it’s off the table for now. But it could resurface.

For instance, Harrison said he still plans to talk to Wake County commissioners about the idea even though the school system isn’t rushing to embrace it.

If Wake were to pursue the idea, which would require passage of a state law, there are two ways to go.

Click here for more info on the Moore County Schools Police Department and here for info on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Department. They’re the two school districts empowered by the state to have their own police force.

Harrison envisions the concept used by Moore County, in which all the school resource officers are overseen by the school police department. Harrison said that having one agency in charge of Wake’s 64 school resource officers would provide consistency in operations and enforcement.

The 13 sworn officers in the Moore County Schools Police patrol the 23 schools, with full-time SROs at the middle and high schools.

The other model used by the much larger Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system still relies on the various agencies in the county to provide school resource officers. Those 57 SROs work with but are not under the authority of the CMS Schools Police.

Instead, the CMS Schools Police has 18 sworn officers: a chief, deputy chief, four detectives and 12 patrol officers. Six patrol officers work the elementary schools, five work at K-8 schools as SROs and one is a SRO at a high school.

The CMS Schools Police also oversee and equip 110 private security guards who are not sworn officers. They help bring the department’s total budget to $12 million.

If it happened, Wake school board chairman Keith Sutton said he’d envision going more like the CMS model that has less than two-dozen officers. It would obviously cost a lot more to pay for all 64 current SROs, plus any additional officers the district might hire.

Sutton said that staff decided not to follow up on Harrison’s recommendation because of the likely cost and logistical issues, plus the amount of staff time it would take on the proposal. Instead, he said staff is focusing on the 15 recommendations that were actually in the task force’s report.

The Wake school board’s one discussion about the police force idea took place at the Aug. 6 work session. Many of those points were repeated in interviews last week.

School board member Jim Martin, who said he could argue both sides of the issue, was the most skeptical of the idea.

Martin cited the challenges that the UNC system campuses have finding officers for their own police forces. He worried about the quality of the officers who’d work in Wake if the district created its own force.

“I don’t think you’re going to gain any significant advantage from it and it costs more,” Martin said. “It’s not fiscally responsible.”

Martin said he’d rather focus on recommendations in the task force report such as hiring more counselors, social workers, psychologists and nurses that he said would prevent problems from happening.

“There’s no question that prevention is more successful than intervention,” Martin said.

School board member John Tedesco, who repeatedly said he’s not definitely for creating the police force, was nevertheless the most receptive to at least studying the idea.

Tedesco said the district should be simultaneously looking at Harrison’s recommendation and the recommendations from the task force. Tedesco said Wake should at least do more research to find out how much it would cost to have a police force.

For instance, Tedesco said the district could talk with the county and the different municipalities about pooling costs for the new department.

“We’re the 16th largest (school system) in the country,” Tedesco said. “You have a higher probability of an incident occurring on our campuses on any given day. I don’t know why we’d stop looking at every possible way to make our schools safe.”

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