Tuscon PD to eliminate school-based officer program

Apr. 26--Tucson police officers who have been assigned to work directly in local middle schools will be sent back out on patrol starting in June, after the outgoing police chief put a halt to a program that has existed for more than 45 years.

School officials received word Wednesday that the 23 school resource officers working in 110 schools will not be available next school year.

The move didn't come entirely as a surprise. The $2.8 million program, which began in 1962 to help combat juvenile delinquency, already had been scaled back to focus primarily on middle schools, with some presence in elementary schools.

And in January, City Manager Mike Hein circulated a memo to City Council members sharing some discretionary items that might be used to close an $11 million budget shortfall. The school resource program was close to the top of that list.

Police Chief Richard Miranda decided to end the program because he wants more officers on patrol. Of the 361 positions available for patrol duty, 27 are vacant, with officers on medical leave or military duty.

"These service gaps need to be filled if we are to meet the future service needs of our community," said Sgt. Fabian Pacheco, a Tucson Police Department spokesman.

Without enough officers, he said, the agency will continue to have increasing response times for non-emergency calls, such as burglaries and car thefts. And it may affect officer safety, since officers should have backup when called to potentially dangerous situations, such as domestic violence incidents.

School resource officers weren't just the "campus cop," responding to fights or substance abuse on campus. Although they handled service calls, they also made presentations to students. But when officials looked at ways to increase efficiency, Pacheco said, they found school officers responded to 0.6 calls per day, while their counterparts in the field were handling anywhere from three to seven reports a day.

"The department, just like many other organizations, is facing tough economic times so we need to be wise, and we need to be careful, and we need to take a hard look at how we allocate our resources," he said.

The vice unit, which is staffed with one sergeant and six officers who investigate liquor and prostitution violations, also has been sent back out on patrol.

School officials say the officers will be sorely missed.

Debbie Summers, principal of Utterback Middle Magnet School, said the officer at her school has been a valuable addition to school safety. His visible presence, she said, is an important sign of the school's commitment to school safety, but the officer also built relationships within the school. Students turned to the officer for advice, and parents sometimes would consult with him, asking for advice on how to talk to their children about staying in school or avoiding drugs or shoplifting.

"It's a sad state of affairs right now," Summers said. "Besides firefighters, police officers and educators are the public servants who probably have the hardest jobs in the world -- and yet sometimes, we have the hardest time getting funding."

Terry Ross, principal of Safford Magnet Middle School, agreed, saying there's no way to make up for the loss of the officer who has been on the campus for four years. Administrators, teachers and other staff simply will have to be more visible on campus to try to compensate for his absence, she said.

"I think it's really unfortunate that this is a decision that needed to be made," Ross said. "I know it's hard financial times for all of us, but in the long run, we're really losing a tremendous positive impact on schools."

The Tucson Unified School District, which had 15 of the 23 officers assigned to its middle schools, can't afford the bill for the officers to remain through overtime work, said Warren Allison, the district's coordinator for school safety. The district itself is facing budget shortfalls, and he's already been asked to trim as much as 10 percent from his department's budget.

"We will just have to try to figure out how to take up the slack," Allison said, adding those decisions will be made after school is out for the summer.

The officers will be able to select patrol assignments based on seniority. It's possible, Pacheco said, that some will pick patrols in nearby areas, so they can continue to maintain a relationship with the schools.

"We want to reassure parents that there's no need to panic," he said. "The Police Department is not going away, and we will continue to have police officers in and around the schools."

Copyright (c) 2008, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.