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How will St. Petersburg staff cops in schools? By taking them off the streets

St. Petersburg Police Chief Tony Holloway said more than half of the city's full-time community police officers will soon be pulled off the streets because of a new state law requiring more officers in schools. (Times files)
Published Mar. 29, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Tony Holloway has made community policing his top priority, but says he now must cut back on officers dedicated to neighborhoods and nuisances, a favorite program of residents.

The chief said it's the only way he can comply with a new state law requiring armed officers in every public school.

"I have no choice," Holloway said. "Kids' safety is first. The state reps and the governor said this is what we want."

Lawmakers passed the measure as a response to the mass shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead. It will force authorities statewide to put hundreds of new safety officers in public schools.

BACKGROUND: Gov. Rick Scott signs gun, school security legislation over NRA opposition

Holloway called the situation "frustrating" and said he worries it will diminish the rapport between his officers and residents. The department is redirecting more than half of its community service officers, who work with neighborhood leaders and homeowners to build trust and stay on top of local issues like car burglaries and speeding.

In total, Holloway said, he has to supply 33 new school resource officers. The department currently provides just 11.

Police leaders across Florida face similar problems. The law provides three ways to fill the role of a "safe-school officer:" a so-called guardian, or trained school staff member; a school district police officer or security guard; or a municipal police officer or sheriff's deputy.

STICKER SHOCK: Tampa Bay needs millions to pay for school security law

State Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and backer of the bill, said "there is no requirement that local law enforcement entities reassign existing officers to cover these duties.

"The main goal is that each facility has at least one person who is specifically trained and able to respond appropriately when students are in danger from an assailant," Galvano said in a statement.

The school board in Pinellas, though, has mirrored several other large counties in rejecting the possibility of arming school staff, preferring to keep student safety in the hands of law enforcement. The district already has resource officers at many middle and high schools. They are deputies, police officers or members of the district's small school police department.

The state provides some funding for resource officers, but Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told county commissioners last week it will cost an additional $12.4 million to put more than 100 new officers in all public schools, including elementary and charter schools.

SCHOOLS REJECT GUARDIANS: Florida's biggest school districts may skip out on armed 'guardians' program, even if Rick Scott signs it

Officials are still sorting out how to cover the expense. Critics have called the legislation a hastily written under-funded mandate.

Gualtieri has said the school district or the County Commission needs to provide immediate funding before the law goes into effect July 1. He said the Sheriff's Office will add 62 resource officer positions, a requirement he plans to meet by hiring experienced officers and transferring staff within his department. He vowed to fill any gaps with overtime shifts and to not reduce law enforcement in his jurisdiction.

"That's not what the governor or the legislature envisioned," the sheriff said. "They said add."

Lauren Schenone, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the Pinellas County School District had $46.2 million in reserves last June, and local leaders should be able to find a solution. The state may redirect more funding for resource officers to districts that don't take up the "guardian" program, she said.

A Pinellas schools spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

In Pasco County, the school district has estimated it will need 47 more resource officers to cover every school in addition to the 37 they have currently. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican whose district includes both Pasco and Pinellas, has asked for federal money from Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pay for the expansion.

FEDERAL REQUEST: U.S. Rep. Bilirakis urges AG Sessions to focus millions on resource officers for nation's biggest school districts

Hillsborough County, home to one of the largest school districts in the nation, needs more than 100 additional resource officers. Both the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department said they are working with school leaders to determine how to meet the demand.

Clearwater police anticipate needing 13 additional officers across 11 schools, said Chief Daniel Slaughter.

The St. Petersburg Police Department, with 552 sworn personnel, is one of the first in the area to lay out a specific plan for adding resource officers. Holloway wrote in a memo last week that he will eliminate 14 of his 22 community service officer positions. They work with neighborhood associations and residents on block-by-block issues.

Many of the problems the division typically handled, Holloway said, will now fall to patrol officers — the street cops who bounce between trouble calls.

"They can't address these quality of life issues every day because they're going to be going call to call," he said.

Marlene Murray, president of the St. Petersburg Council of Neighborhood Associations, said community leaders are dismayed by the prospect of having less contact with police.

"It's not necessarily going to solve the school shooting problem, but it's creating a huge neighborhood problem and community problem with less officers on the street," she said.

The reductions will also hit the department's gang unit especially hard. Six positions from the squad will go to resource officer slots, which, combined with other transfers and a retirement, will essentially dissolve the unit. Also being eliminated: a Police Athletic League position, one special events unit officer, and lieutenant and sergeant roles in the department's data-driven crime unit. Probationary officers currently in field training were going to fill 11 spots opened by retirement, but those positions will instead go to schools.

The slots being cut could open again if the department secures additional funding later, Holloway said. He and his command staff prioritized keeping positions that handle serious crimes and emergency calls each day over lower-priority problems and some proactive policing.

St. Petersburg Detective George Lofton, president of the local police union, said even with funding, the process of hiring a few dozen new officers could take a year with recruitment and training. Frustrated residents should direct their anger at state leaders, he said.

"There's nothing that I or Holloway or anyone can do," Lofton said. "Tallahassee basically knee-jerked this reaction in an election year, and here we are."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said everyone wants safe schools, but the reallocation in St. Petersburg could hurt residents in the rest of the city.

"It will not make the rest of the community safer," the mayor said, "because we'll be taking officers from their normal jobs."

The state will need to provide more money if local leaders are to replace the officers pulled from the street, said Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, chair of the St. Petersburg City Council.

"They always want to try to tell local governments how to govern, but they don't live here," she said. "I don't want our residents to feel as if they're not protected."

Times staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Marlene Sokol, Colleen Wright and Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

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