Camden police, school boards consider resource officer position for K-12 schools

Posted:  Tuesday, December 26, 2017 - 7:45pm

ROCKPORT — The Camden-Rockport School Board voted 5 to 1 on Dec. 20 to allow Superintendent Maria Libby to continue talking to Camden Police Chief Randy Gagne, as well as the Five Town CSD Board of Directors, about employing a school resource officer in the elementary, middle and high schools in Camden and Rockport. The next step is for the Five Town CSD board to discuss the idea when it meets Jan. 3.

The board discussed the idea briefly after Libby and Gagne described the purpose and goals of the position, as well as its associated costs.

If approved during the budget process, a SRO would work full-time with the schools while in session, and then for either Camden or Rockport police department during the summer. 

Gagne said he would hire an SRO internally and not expand the the departments.

At the end of the 1990s, the old Camden-Rockport High School on Knowlton Street in Camden, which became the Camden-Rockport Middle School, had SRO Rob Laite on campus.

Then, soon after the new Camden Hills Regional High School was built in Rockport in 1999, the CSD shared a School Resource Officer Kipp Bickford with the Town of Rockport, a collaboration that allowed for one uniformed police officer to be at the school on a regular schedule for nine months. The remaining summer months, he worked throughout the town.

The Five Town CSD voided that contract in 2006, and instead hired another assistant principal for the high school.

The initial funding for the CHRHS resource officer derived from a three-year U.S. Department of Justice grant. The DOJ funded 75 percent of the position, funneling money through the Rockport Police Department.

In 2004, the Camden Police Department submitted a similar grant application to the DOJ for a SRO at the Camden-Rockport Middle School.  That one did not get approved.

The duties of School Resource Officers

According to the federal Dept. of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services, SROs are sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools.

The COPS program administers the federal grants to communities for such positions.

A local police department, sheriff's agency, or school system typically employs SROs who work closely with school administrators to create a safer environment. 

The responsibilities of SROs are similar to regular police officers in that they have the ability to make arrests, respond to calls for service, and document incidents that occur within their jurisdiction. 

Beyond law enforcement, SROs also serve as educators, emergency managers, and informal counselors.

“While an SRO's primary responsibility is law enforcement, whenever possible, SROs should strive to employ non-punitive techniques when interacting with students,” the COPS website said. “Arrests should be used only as a last resort under specified circumstances.”

In September, the Justice Department announced additional priority consideration criteria for FY2017 COPS Office grants. Applicants were notified that their application would receive additional points in the application scoring process by certifying their willingness to cooperate with federal immigration authorities within their detention facilities. Cooperation may include providing access to detention facilities for an interview of aliens in the jurisdiction’s custody and providing advance notice of an alien’s release from custody upon request. Eighty percent of the awarded agencies received additional points based on their certifications of willingness to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The complete list of the 2017 award recipients can be found here.

Since 1994, the COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion on community policing.

By 2006, after the DOJ grant had ended, the Five Town CSD was spending $34,000 on the SRO position while the town of Rockport paid additional $12,000 for Bickford’s summer work. 

This latest proposal to position a police officer for nine months of the year in the schools emerged from conversations between Superintendent Libby, Chief Gagne, and the town managers of Camden and Rockport, Audra-Caler Bell and Rick Bates, respectively.

The goal is to dedicate one officer to each of the three public schools. That officer would spend his or her time to support the school system, be the go-to officer for incidents, and respond to issues as they crop up.

Currently, Rockport or Camden officers respond to school incidents as they arise. Sometimes, an officer eats lunch with the students in the various schools.

“We are using their [police] resources a fair amount,” said Libby, at the Dec. 20 meeting.

Gagne believes the SRO would grow stronger community ties with the students at all ages, and provide a positive police presence. The SRO would also advise the schools on emergency drills.

The funding model, without a DOJ grant, would entail having the town budget for half of the position, $18,000, and the two school districts, SAD 28 and the Five Town CSD, split the other half, approximately $9,000 for each district.

If both districts and towns approve, however, Gagne would pursue a grant from the federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program administered by the U.S. DOJ. (See sidebar).

Gagne said he would survey officers already employed in Camden and Rockport for interest in the position.

“I’m not looking to add to the number of police positions in the towns,” he said. “I look at it as an experiment.”

Libby said the school districts would be involved in the SRO hiring process. 

Camden resident Bob Lawson, who formerly sat on the Five Town CSD and SAD 28 school boards, asked about the frequency of police visits to schools in a year.

“What warrants the full-time,” he asked.

Libby responded that the SRO would also help with emergency planning, “and just being a presence.”

 Gagne said a full-time SRO could also tend to computer records retrievals, court orders, and possibly identify suspects. 

Camden resident and Select Board member Alison McKellar said: “it sounds like a wonderful thing. The public does not get enough time to interact [with police] in a nonconfrontational way.”

An SRO, she said, would establish greater connectivity with the community.

SAD 28 board member Marcia Dietrich said the concept was wonderful but she had concerns about the “creep of administrative expenses.”

She cited the CSD board’s termination of the SRO contract in 2006 and the decision to hire a new assistant principal, instead. At that time, the CSD budgeted $73,000 for the newly created assistant principal job and voters approved the budget at the polls at the June town meeting.

“We took that money instead and hired an assistant principal,” she said.

She added: “What can we give up?”

Libby responded: “I don’t think I have a good answer for the last part,” but she added, “I think it’s a great resource for not a lot of money.”

Board Chairman Matt Dailey asked whether the SRO would be armed. 

“Yes, armed at all times,” said Gagne.

He described the different manners of carrying firearms, and said SROs are trained professionals who continuously practice at the shooting range.

“Right now, theoretically, there’s nobody walking around schools is armed,” said Dailey, adding that he had no doubt the police had highest standards of professional capabilities.

“Right now you’ve gone from zero percent of nothing happening to a tiny percent of something happening,” he said. “Kids out on a soccer field have probably a better chance of something happening” than someone coming into the school requiring an armed response.

Gagne responded: “It can happen here as easily as it can in Los Angeles,” raising the specter of more recent tragedies.

“Las Vegas?” he asked.

“It’s not realistic,” said Dailey.

“It might not be realistic in your world, but it is in mine,” said Gagne.

“I understand,” said Dailey. “Your point of view is a lot different than mine.”

Gagne said: “We train for the day we hope never comes.”

In the end, Dietrich motioned to approve the concept, which allows Libby to take the proposal to the Five Town CSD Jan. 3 board meeting. 

The board approved the concept of supporting a shared officer, 5 to 1, with Dailey opposing the measure.