PBSO-school police merger? They can’t even agree on patrolling schools

While a police think tank recommends considering a merger of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and the school district’s police, the two sides say they are dubious about the idea and are having trouble even coming to terms on assuring an armed officer in every school.

Sheriff Ric Bradshaw this week rejected the school district’s request that he provide a rotating team of deputies to do overtime patrols at 50 public elementary schools, saying he can’t spare the officers.

And on Wednesday, after a report he commissioned came out suggesting they consider combining forces, he told reporters “I’m not interested in doing a merger.”

Likewise, schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy told The Palm Beach Post last week that he had no interest, saying a merger would be too costly.

The report by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based police-policy think tank, points out that the school district’s police department “has fewer personnel and resources” than the sheriff’s office.

In the event of a school attack, the report concluded, the school district “would rely heavily on PBSO and other municipal law enforcement agencies,” a situation that “presents obstacles to an effective response.”

“The efforts to work together that accelerated following the Parkland mass shooting cannot recede or lapse over time,” the organization wrote.

If efforts at greater cooperation prove unfruitful, officials “should consider a consolidation of the agencies,” the report concluded.

The school district is trying to comply with a new state law, passed after the Parkland school shooting in February, that requires an armed officer at every public school by August.

The school district has received tentative support from 11 city police departments to patrol 47 elementary schools within their respective city limits. District officials are hoping that the sheriff’s office will agree to cover another 45 to 50 elementary schools outside of cities.

Instead, Bradshaw offered to hire and provide 50 full-time deputies for school patrols for one year, for an estimated $7 million.

“From the beginning of the conversations … we made it abundantly clear that we CAN NOT provide a large number of deputies on an overtime basis,” Bradshaw wrote to the district Monday in a memo obtained by The Palm Beach Post.

“The reason behind this constraint,” Bradshaw wrote, “is the Sheriff’s Office has an enormous commitment to services above and beyond the normal calls for service.”

Among those commitments, he wrote, is providing extra security for President Trump during his frequent visits to Palm Beach during the winter.

The sheriff’s offer of a one-year, $7 million contract is likely to face skepticism from the school district, which is hiring its own officers and hopes to taper down its use of cops from other agencies during the school year.

The sheriff’s office’s proposal appears to require hiring extra deputies, putting the county’s largest law enforcement agency in direct competition with the school district to recruit officers interested in working in school settings.

That could put the school district, which pays its officers a lower base salary, at a hiring disadvantage.

Bradshaw’s proposal would require the district to pay for the deputies for a complete year, a condition that could force the district to delay hiring its own officers or be forced to pay for more officers than it needs.

“We want to build our police force as quickly as possible,” said Amity Schuyler, the school district’s chief of staff.

Under the sheriff’s proposal, “we’d have to very carefully pace our hiring so we’re not overstaffed.”

She added, though, that “we’re looking at all options.”

In a news conference Wednesday, Bradshaw countered that schools are better served by having the same officer there day after day, not a rotating team of deputies doing overtime shifts for extra money.

“It makes sense, for consistency, to have the same deputy in the same school,” Bradshaw said. “We don’t have the ability to do it on a time-and-a-half basis. Our pool of available deputies is depleting every single day.”

Underlying the negotiations is a belief by both sides that they are the best outfit to safeguard the county’s public schools.

The district prides itself on having operated its own police department for decades, while the sheriff’s office argues its deputies are better trained, better paid and better equipped to keep campuses safe amid rising concerns about school shootings.

In his memo, Bradshaw said that since the Parkland massacre his office has helped the school district with extra patrols, mental health services and a cellphone application for students to report troubling behavior, one that he called “the most innovative in the state.”

“My commitment to you and the district is to do all we can to protect our children and provide a safe environment at schools for them and district personnel,” he wrote.

Staff writer Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this story.

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