Broward schools may create their own police force

Broward Schools may overhaul the way it runs its school police program, creating its own force of sworn officers rather than outsourcing to local law enforcement agencies.

The school district already has a small police department known as the Special Investigations Unit, which handles employee investigations and some security services. But the School Board may greatly expand its efforts, creating a full-service department within three years to equip its campuses with its own school resource officers.

“There is major value in improving safety with direct board oversight and integrating police in our schools and local communities so parents are reassured about the safety of their children,” Board member Torey Alston told the Sun Sentinel.

Alston brought up the idea at Tuesday’s meeting and a majority of board members expressed interest. The School Board expects to discuss it more at an upcoming workshop later this year.

Although it’s more common for school districts to use outside law enforcement, school police departments have become more common in recent years. Some, like Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Sarasota, are full-fledged police departments, while others, like Orange County, use a hybrid model that use both their own officers plus ones from outside agencies.

Right now, the Broward school district contracts with 13 different municipalities, which provide school resource officers from city police departments or the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

There’s no consensus among experts about which model works best, noting the quality and level of service can vary from one district to the next.

Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the Sarasota-based School Safety Advocacy Council, has worked as a school resource officer in both Broward and Palm Beach counties.

He said he likes the idea of a school police department “if it’s done right and that’s a big caveat. It can come off the tracks very quickly” if training, resources and quality control aren’t maintained, he said.

Rising costs

While Broward school officials say they are happy with the service provided by the 200 school resource officers on campuses, costs have skyrocketed in recent years, from $46,252 per officer in 2017 to $61,200 in 2021 to $103,000 this past school year.

Cities want even more for the coming school year.

“Whatever amount that we end up going with, we’ll be back next year because that number will grow, the cost will grow,” said Brad McKeone, police chief for Coral Springs, recently told the School Board. “At some point, there will be a cost on this side that is not affordable to provide security at the level I think that we all want.”

The $103,000 Broward spends per officer is already significantly higher than many other districts that use outside agencies, a district analysis found. For example, Lee pays $50,000 to $61,391 per officer, Charlotte $69,082, Orange $60,000 and Seminole $54,000.

An outlier is Monroe County schools, which pay $121,947 per officer to the Sheriff’s Office and $158,724 to the Key West Police Department.

Local law enforcement officials were insulted earlier this year when the district offered $73,000. They asked for $103,000 for the 2022-23 school year, which the School Board agreed to in April.

Now at least one city, Hollywood, wants to increase that to $166,959 and has asked the school district to pay for two supervisors at a cost of $208,261 each.

The best approach?

Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff said she’s spoken in the past with Jaime Alberti, chief of safety and security, about having a police force and thought it was a good idea.

“Now we are being propelled forward to actually execute this and have a plan, and we’re going to need to set aside funding,” Alhadeff said.

Exactly how much it would cost and whether it would be cheaper are still unknown. Superintendent Peter Licata said he has started studying that. He was recently from Palm Beach County School District, which has its own police force.

“Are we able to spend the same kind of money but have employees of our own that may understand the system of schools versus police activity-type things,” Licata said.

Not all School Board members support the idea. Allen Zeman told the Sun Sentinel that he doesn’t think the School Board will ever be able to build a police force of the same quality as local law enforcement agencies.

“It’s a tremendously bad idea,”  Zeman said. “If we have another horrific instance on our school, the preponderance of response will come from a city police force or the Sheriff’s Office. If it happens in Coral Springs, it will be Coral Springs police. If it happens in Fort Lauderdale, it will be the Fort Lauderdale PD. We need to solidify our relationship with the cities.”

But Licata said he’s been impressed with the school police force in Palm Beach County. He said the officers serve as mentors to kids. They are part of before- and after-school activities and “really know the children, know the families, know the community,” he said.

Sarah Mooney, chief of the Palm Beach County police department, said those same qualities can happen with outside school resource officers if a school has the same ones every day. But she said there’s more consistency in service when the officers are part of one department.

“When it comes to the dynamics and expectations of the officers, we answer directly to the superintendent and School Board,” she said. “If there’s something they want us to do or not do, we’re accountable to them, as long as it’s legal and lawful and not outside our jurisdiction.”

But some question whether that’s the best approach.

“The independence is lost,” said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs a commission that has made school safety recommendations in the wake of the Parkland tragedy. “The police chief is working for the superintendent who is working for the School Board. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a great thing.”