School police, city's force might merge

Mayor favors plan as a way to fight juvenile crime, gangs

February 15, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,sun reporter

The city's school police force might merge with the larger Baltimore department under a plan favored by Mayor Sheila Dixon to help curtail crime by focusing on problem juveniles and an upsurge in gang activity.

Dixon said yesterday that she is "in very serious discussions" about combining the forces and is waiting for recommendations from the city police, led by Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, who ran the school police force from 1997 to 2001.

A spokesman said Hamm favored the move, which would in essence shift responsibility for the safety of about 180 schools and 83,000 students from the school board -- appointed in part by the governor -- to the city. The board has sole power over the school police force budget and choice of its chief executive.

Control over city schools is likely to become an issue in this year's mayoral race, in which Dixon is being challenged by several candidates. One of the top contenders, Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., has called for city officials to take back complete control of the Baltimore school system -- a proposal resisted by Dixon in favor of the existing city-state partnership.

But school officials cautioned that they need to learn more details about the proposed police merger and how it would affect teachers, staff members and students.

"At this point, I've heard the whispers," said Brian Morris, the city school board chairman. "I've not had an opportunity to fully understand what the implications will be. I welcome the dialogue."

Talk of a possible merger comes at a time when Dixon and other city leaders have expressed concern about juvenile crime and reports that gang activity involving youths on and off school grounds is on the rise.

Matt Jablow, a Baltimore police spokesman, said Hamm likes Dixon's idea and, having led school police in the past, understands how it works.

"If it's going to happen, this is the perfect time for it to happen," Jablow said. "He can integrate them as well as anyone. Commissioner Hamm has always said that there's a lot of very good criminal intelligence to be gained from our schools. It would be of tremendous advantage to us."

The school police force has 100 sworn law enforcement officers, 32 resource specialists and 75 hall monitors, along with 24 vehicles and an operating budget of $6.6 million, a schools spokeswoman said. The force also operates a dispatch system with 10 employees.

The city Police Department has about 3,000 officers, operates the city's 911 emergency response system, a crime lab and divisions of patrol officers and detectives. It has an annual budget of about $332 million -- $50 million of which is derived from state and federal sources.

If a merger were to happen, it would be the second time in less than three years that the police force absorbed a smaller city law enforcement agency.

In 2004, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City police force -- 65 officers who patrolled thousands of public housing units -- was taken over by the city.

Baltimore police created a "housing section" and required housing officers to reapply for positions.

Today, the housing section has 43 officers, but its commander oversees an additional 85 officers whom he can deploy to public housing complexes when necessary, Jablow said.

Jablow said it is too early to tell how school police officers would be accommodated by the city police. But the spokesman said that the school system would not be lost or neglected in any take-over.

"There were some of those same concerns when we took over the housing police department, and as far as I know, those concerns have not materialized," Jablow said. "We have focused a tremendous amount of energy on public housing. If we take over the schools police, our intention would be to increase our presence."

Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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