School police chief on shooters: ‘You need to go take out the threat’

March 01, 2018
Palm Beach School District Police Chief Lawrence Leon said that being a school resource officer is primarly “about building those relationships.” (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County School District Police Chief Lawrence Leon oversees more than 150 armed, licensed officers who patrol the county’s public schools. In an interview, he said he isn’t a big fan of putting metal detectors in the county’s campuses, that his department’s officers are trained to confront a shooter even if they’re alone, and that his officers’ most important role is building relationships with students. This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.

Q: What are your officers trained to do if there’s a shooter on campus? Do they wait for backup?

A: As you’re calling for assistance, you know that they’re coming, but you need to go take out the threat. I really don’t want to go into our tactics or techniques, but we go after the individual that is causing the situation.

Q: How do your officers prepare for the possibility of a shooting on campus?

A: We do training that encompasses that. It’s a whole mock scenario to bring up the tensions and everything else that occurs to make it a real-life situation. We’ve done full school drills where we’ve brought in students and put them in makeup and gone through that scenario. We run every officer through it. We’ll use a school campus.

Q: What are your thoughts on metal detectors?

A: There’s a lot of pros and cons. There’s a significant cost in maintenance, staffing, upkeep, everything else. The other piece that’s there is: Our random searches that we do with our gun dogs help tremendously. Our dogs go through the schools, they go through the classrooms, they’re able to detect guns or anything pertaining to a gun. So that’s very beneficial. To me, I’d rather bring the dog in. That’s quick and in-and-out and does the same thing with fewer people.

And the way the buildings are designed, (metal detectors) are very difficult. You have multiple entries, and there’s been numerous situations (in other areas) where right there at the metal detector a shooting has occurred.

Q: What’s a typical day for a school resource officer?

A: They’re out and about, and they have that time in between classes when they’re working on reports. But there are parent meetings, there are student meetings where kids are coming in and talking to them. They’re on safety committees with the administration team. They’re out and about checking the campus, being visible and just being proactive. And a lot of times that’s what’s very important: being a presence on that campus.

You’re a role model on that campus. I’m there one day and I may have a situation with one of the students, and I have to deal with it. And I know the next day I’m going to have the same student. So we’re there every day and we work through any issues. But you’re also there when they need you.

Q: What are the benefits of having officers dedicated completely to the school?

A: It’s about building those relationships. I had a (former) student reach out to me. It was a child who at a drop of a hat would have a fight. And you try to be the parent as well — that’s another role we have. And she actually said to me, “You are the dad I didn’t have, and you taught me what to look for in a man and that’s what I found in my husband.” You can’t ask for anything else. Those things mean more than anything else because now you realize full-circle the impact you made.