In debating who should pay the cost of having a school resource officer at Northgate High School, the first question that must be asked is, should anyone pay?
Should Northgate High School have a police officer stationed there full-time during the school year? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?
Proponents will tell you that there is a tremendous benefit. Just like in the school re-alignment debate, however, the benefits are intangible. There are no statistics proving more cases are closed or crimes are prevented. The benefit arguably lies in the relationship created between the SRO and the students. It is believed that teenagers familiar with the SRO will be more likely to approach him if there are potential problems, and to rat out other students if the problems actually occur. I'm not so sure about that last part. I somehow doubt kids will tell an SRO any more than they will tell a teacher that they see far more frequently.
But I am in favor of any efforts by the police department to integrate itself into the community. Bellevue got a whopping grant for community-oriented policing, which indicates that the experts also see the benefits of a good relationship between police officers and the people they serve.
I see the biggest benefit of having an SRO being the relationship he can develop with the kids who are on the edge, or maybe even over the edge; the ones whose lives are paving a road to someplace they really don't want to go. How many lives can be saved by that relationship? Even one would be enough.
I picture a scenario in which one of those kids gets himself into a situation where he's backed himself into a corner and is confronted by police with guns and tasers drawn. An SRO who has developed a relationship with this kid might be able to get everyone out of it without any blood being shed. But that leads to the major problem that keeps the SRO from being all that he can be: the SRO is one person, working one shift. He is not going to be everywhere at every minute. Not humanly possible. So how is the tremendous knowledge of the SRO being shared with the rest of the officers in the department? How are ALL of the officers being brought into this community-oriented philosophy that is primarily expressed in the form of an SRO?
It concerned me when Police Chief Matt Sentner said at a recent meeting that it takes a special officer to work with kids. He could name only two in Bellevue's 15-man department. That tells me that Bellevue needs to be looking at some different kinds of skill sets in any future hires. The critical need for community-oriented policing will continue to grow in this country, and the very first thing necessary for it is having officers who are capable of dealing effectively with the community.
So, I like the idea of having an SRO at a high school, any high school. Now, what will it cost, and who is going to pick up the tab?
The Northgate School District is comprised of two boroughs, Avalon and Bellevue. The people paying taxes to Avalon or Bellevue are the same ones paying taxes to Northgate. However, Bellevue taxpayers are currently taking on more than their fair share of the cost of some school services.
First there is the SRO. Some officials are estimating the cost for a full-time SRO for nine months to be about $60,000. We hope that includes benefits in addition to salary, or the cost may need to be adjustd. There also are crossing guards who work in each community.
At this time, Avalon Borough pays nothing toward the cost of the SRO or any crossing guards working in that community. In a year without grants in the past, Bellevue Borough has paid at least $40,000 of the total SRO cost, and also half of the cost of the crossing guards who work in Bellevue. Bellevue Borough, of course, is not obligated to pay for any of this, something Avalon officials figured out and took advanatage of years ago.
But what is now happening is that not only are Bellevue taxpayers shouldering at least half these personnel costs through their borough taxes, they are chipping in on the other half through their school district taxes. Avalon taxpayers, meanwhile, are contributing to only the smallest portion of the costs attributable to Northgate.
So it seems that the only fair -- not to mention fiscally responsible -- thing to do is make Northgate responsible for 100 percent of the personnel costs, and the money will come in appropriate shares from each community.