Opposition to planned merger of city, school police

March 01, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

Mayor Sheila Dixon's proposal to merge the city's school police with the larger Baltimore Police Department has hit a snag -- the chairman of the school board strongly opposes the idea, which needs board approval to move forward.

About two weeks ago, Dixon said she was involved in "very serious discussions" to combine the forces. But Brian Morris, the school board chairman, voiced opposition to the plan at Tuesday's board meeting and said it was unlikely to win board approval.

During an interview yesterday, Morris praised the school police and said they have a crucial role in maintaining order in the schools.

"Our police force is a specialized department that is trained specifically on interacting with juveniles," Morris said. "It's important our school police become a fabric of the learning environment. They're as critical as principals, teachers and custodians."

Dixon unveiled the merger proposal at a time when city leaders were expressing concern about juvenile crime and reports that gang activity was rising in city schools. Dixon said she was awaiting recommendations from Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, the head of the city Police Department. Hamm ran the school police force from 1997 to 2001. The school police are responsible for the safety of 83,000 students in about 180 schools, and the school board oversees it.

But Morris did not embrace the proposal when Dixon made it public, saying: "At this point, I've heard the whispers. I've not had an opportunity to fully understand what the implications will be. I welcome the dialogue."

Anthony W. McCarthy, the mayor's spokesman, said yesterday that Dixon will continue to make school security a high priority.

"Mayor Dixon has given a lot of thought to how she can improve resources available to Baltimore City schools police," McCarthy said. "Working with the [police] commissioner, there's going to be a stronger relationship between city and school police officers. The goal is to have the most well-equipped and prepared school police possible."

A police spokesman said Hamm favors the merger, which would essentially shift responsibility for school safety to his department.

In 2004, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City police force -- an independent group of 65 officers who patrolled public housing units -- was absorbed by the city. The Police Department then created a housing section and required officers who had worked for the housing authority to reapply.

"Commissioner Hamm has said before that he thinks it's important that the city has a seamless law enforcement effort," said police spokesman Matt Jablow. "We took a step in that direction when we merged with housing. This would be another step."

The school police force has 100 sworn officers, 32 resource specialists, 75 hall monitors and operates on an annual budget of $6.6 million.

The city Police Department has about 3,000 officers, a $332 million annual budget and operates the city's 911 emergency response team.

City officials have said that combining the departments could help curb rising juvenile criminal behavior because officers could focus on students involved in gang activity in schools.

Morris, though, said the police department can do that in conjunction with schools police.

"The ills of society permeate our schools like every other institution," Morris said. "But the police force has citywide jurisdiction. So it's not unlike how other law enforcement agencies work together."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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