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Need for city school police force questioned

Some legislators question whether Baltimore schools need to have a separate police force.

In the wake of a debate over whether Baltimore's school police should be allowed to carry guns in schools, some state lawmakers are questioning whether the district should continue to employ its own police when the system is grappling with a $108 million budget deficit.

The discussion comes after city legislators killed a bill last week that would have allowed the officers to be armed at all times, a practice now prohibited. It also comes as the city lobbies to avoid $35 million in state budget cuts that could lead to teacher layoffs.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the school system should look at whether the city Police Department could take over or share in patrolling schools, as is done in other Maryland districts at no cost to their school systems.

According to salary records obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the city school district paid about $9 million in salaries to its 141-member police force in 2013, the most recent figures available. The department's expenses are not detailed in the school system's budget.

"The conversation of whether or not the school police force should be carrying guns in schools misses the point," said Ferguson. "It's an important moment to ask the question: Is this the best expenditure possible for our students' needs?"

Meanwhile, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he has ordered an audit of the school police department. He did not respond to a request for comment on Ferguson's suggestion.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the city school police union, defended the force as invaluable. In addition to keeping schools and students safe, he said, officers also serve as mentors, coaches and class advisers.

"Everyone cannot police schools. That's why we're unique," Boatwright said. "Our officers are qualified to be part of any force in the state, but they choose to come here for the love of children."

Boatwright said it is unfortunate that the recent focus has been on the legal weapons that officers would bring into the schools and not the illegal ones they keep out. In the past four years, Baltimore's school police have recovered 915 weapons on school grounds, including 12 firearms.

"You cannot measure the amount of incidents our officers have abated," he said. "A lot of times in our profession, we're used to coming to the scene and cleaning up after something has happened. We're on the ground, preventing things from happening."

Some city legislators joined Ferguson in saying the school system should explore other options.

"Given that we're the only jurisdiction that employs a school police force, we need to be looking at other models to see if it's the right use of our school funds," said Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat.

However, not all state lawmakers believe that using Baltimore police in city schools would be the best course.

Del. Curt Anderson, who chairs Baltimore's House delegation, said he doesn't think it would be possible for the city's police force to patrol the schools.

"The Baltimore police force is spread extremely thin now, and to add 188 schools to their responsibility would be pushing the city's police force beyond the limit," Anderson said.

Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, said combining the departments would be a "terrible idea."

"The culture of the Baltimore Police Department is not one suited to conduct business within a school," she said.

However, Carter is not a defender of the present system, saying that school police are to quick to arrest students for "normal teenage behavior" such as arguing or fighting. The mission of school law enforcement, she said, "should be to serve and protect the children, not criminalize the children."

A spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, asked whether the agency would be able to take on the city schools, referred questions to the mayor's office. A spokesman for the mayor said "an idea such as this would require extensive review and study."

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said having Baltimore police patrol the schools would be "the worst idea that anyone could think of."

Young said city police must first recover from the mistrust in the community before the officers could cultivate the sort of relationship the school police have with students and their families. He said most of the school police officers have strong ties to Baltimore and can identify with students.

City police "don't really understand our kids," he said.

Councilman Brandon Scott, vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he doesn't believe budgetary issues would be resolved by changing the way police are staffed in schools. He said there is a perception in the community that Baltimore police are overworked and overstressed now.

Boatwright said that while Baltimore's school police force is unique in Maryland, Cleveland, San Diego, Miami-Dade, Detroit and Las Vegas are among other systems that have school police.

He said the city school system needs its own police force for the same reason that other city entities, such as the Transportation Department, have one.

"Everyone has their own specialty, and it's been proven to be an effective way of managing resources," Boatwright said. "Everyone's focused on their own area, and that's how we are most productive."

But Ferguson said that in a system that needs more mental health services, summer school, after-school activities and guidance counselors, the school system needs to reassess its priorities.

"Given that the social and emotional needs of our students are so severe ... it's time to rethink the allocation of these funds so that they're spent in the best way possible," he said. "In a tight budget, every dollar counts."

Councilman Bill Henry, vice-chair of the Education Committee, said he hopes the conversation about school policing would take place largely in Baltimore, not in Annapolis.

"There are schools that need policing, and there are schools that need more security and discipline," Henry said. "And maybe what we need is more than one tool for what is clearly a nuanced set of needs."

Baltimore Sun reporters Yvonne Wenger and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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