Broward Sheriff Offers to Take Over Policing for Florida District, But the Price Is Steep

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony announced that two additional deputies have been fired as a result of the agency's internal affairs investigation into the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland at BSO headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony announced that two additional deputies have been fired as a result of the agency's internal affairs investigation into the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland at BSO headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, Wednesday, June 26, 2019.
—Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS
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As Broward County, Fla., struggles to protect their campuses with armed security, Sheriff Gregory Tony offered a possible solution: Allow his office to take over school policing countywide.

The idea would give the district a “unified school police department," similar to what’s offered in neighboring school districts of Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County, he said. The idea is to increase safety for students and ensure every school has an officer who won’t get called away to other emergencies.

But it comes with a huge price tag: $180 million a year, according to Tony’s proposal, which was sent to the district in April. That’s more than triple the district’s current budget for police and security staff, which this year increased from $32 million to $53 million.

“It’s not something that’s feasible for this district or any district really in terms of the cost," Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told the School Board at a meeting July 23.

But the district may soon have no choice but to provide security in a way that’s different and potentially more costly. Right now the district has separate agreements with 13 cities and the Broward Sheriff’s Office to provide school resource officers in high schools, middle schools, and some elementaries. Last year, the district paid $52,000 per officer, but the average salary is $90,000, not including the benefits and equipment, Lauderhill Police Chief Constance Stanley wrote in an letter to Runcie in April.

With the school year starting Wednesday, the district has no contract for school police services for the new year, with cost being the major roadblock. The Broward County Chiefs of Police Association, which Stanley heads, wants at least $75,000 per officer; the district has countered with an offer of $54,600, increasing to $60,000 in two years.

Schools won’t go unprotected, however. Police officers and sheriff’s deputies plan to work in the schools while negotiations continue. There have been several times in recent years when contracts weren’t signed until well after the school year started.

“Municipalities will not deviate from what has been done in the past,” Stanley said Friday. “We are jointly committed to making our schools safe for our children, teachers, and all school support staff members."

The long-term plan is less clear as more armed security is needed. A law passed last year after the Parkland mass shooting requires every school to have at least one armed officer.

Before that, the school district placed officers in elementary schools only if cities helped pay the costs. Now, some elected officials say they shouldn’t have to pay for police at all, that’s it’s the school district’s responsibility. The district has hired armed employees known as guardians to comply with the state law, but recruiting has been tough and turnover has been high due largely to the pay, which is about $25,000 to $33,000 a year.

Deerfield Beach Mayor Bill Ganz said this week that the district should tax residents countywide to pay for policing. He said it’s unfair for his city to pay for students in Lighthouse Point, which has no school, and other cities where students in Deerfield Beach schools live.

“We’re subsidizing something that’s your job to do,” he told district officials at a City Commission meeting Tuesday night. “I don’t think this is right at all.”

City officials in Margate and Fort Lauderdale have raised similar concerns.

The concerns are one reason a countywide school police force is needed, the Sheriff’s Office says. The proposal describes the current model as a “patchwork of agreements" that "is critically lacking in several important areas.”

Among the problems it cites are inadequate reimbursements to cities, a lack of unified supervision for officers, and inconsistent training, procedures and communications plans. For students, that means every school, regardless of grade level, would have at least one officer who is well-trained in how to deal with the risks facing students. Officers would also be able to better track kids who change schools, leaving the new school less vulnerable.

Right now, the Sheriff’s Office provides 64 deputies to 55 schools in cities where it provides law enforcement. The proposal would provide full-time officers to all 234-district-run schools as well as 96 charter schools, which now must find their own security. That includes about 432 sworn officers to meet state recommended standards of one officer per 1,100 students. Ninety-three others would serve as relief officers. There would be 24 after-hour patrol units, four canine units, 39 detectives, and a number of support staff.

The change would eliminate friction between the district and cities over issues such as whether officers can leave a school to attend other emergencies in the city, the report says. It would offer better real-time surveillance video and standard communications, and officers would be better able to serve on teams that assess which students pose a threat to themselves or others, the proposal states.

“There are significant advantages,” the proposal states. “There are very few disadvantages, with the most significant being the cost factor associated with that model.”

It’s unclear whether the district would consider this if the Sheriff’s Office reduced the price. District Security Chief Brian Katz said the district is still discussing the issue with the Sheriff’s Office and local police chiefs, but indicated support for the current agreement with cities and the Sheriff’s Office.

“We are steadfast in the belief that [a school resource officer] program that involves partner law enforcement agencies is what is best for our staff and student,” he said in a statement.

The Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to specific questions, saying only that it would continue to work with the district.

“We are focused on making students, teachers, and families feel safe and having schools be places where they all feel they belong,” Tony said in a statement. The Sheriff’s Office "is committed to always protecting the security and safety of our Broward County community, and our schools are an important part of that commitment.”

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