Schools are where the people are, so they should be where the police are, too


Why rob banks? Depression era bank robber Willie Sutton's supposed answer to this question is legendary because of its irrefutable logic: "Because that's where the money is."

The late Mr. Sutton's simple quip about criminality is remembered and repeated by succeeding generations when situation at hand calls for a reality check. Such is the case when the question increasing police presence in Harford County Public Schools is raised.

Why put more police in the schools? Because that's where the at-risk population is for eight or more hours a day for about 180 days each year.

In recent years, the national trend has been one of declining crime rates, a trend that has been evident in Harford County. Crime hasn't gone away, but the statistics consistently have been down. Any number of efforts can be credited with decreases in individual communities, and targeted efforts to thwart localized problems can be shown to have positive effects.

Still, talk to anyone in a police agency who keeps up on crime trends and the reason for national and local decreases in crime rates can be attributed to a single key factor: The population is aging. That means young people comprise a smaller portion of the population as a whole and, statistically speaking, young people, more specifically young men, are responsible for the lion's share (possibly more appropriately in this case, the jackal's share) of street crime.

A quick scan of the police blotter most weeks provides a substantial body of anecdotal evidence that criminal activity has a strong correlation with people in their teens and 20s. Similarly, there is anecdotal evidence in the police blotter that cases of vandalism increase when summer vacation starts.

Targeting crime in a meaningful way means targeting resources where the vulnerable population is, and the age correlation means schools, especially high and middle schools, are good places to put police.

This is not to say our schools are packed with thugs, vandals and would-be Willie Suttons. To the contrary, most young people are not criminals. It's just that the percentage of young people likely to end up on the wrong side of the law is higher in the 18-29 demographic than it is in the 50-63 demographic.

Just as police on patrol in a neighborhood are useful only to the degree that they respect and serve the law-abiding majorities, even in crime-plagued neighborhoods, they also prove useful in our schools if they understand their role is to protect the law-abiding majority of students from the few who are of a criminal bent.

For several years, schools across Harford County have had school resource officers assigned to them by the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the municipal police departments of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace. Based on their performance and the general goodwill the officers generate among the students and the larger communities of parents, teachers and staff, it is clear the officers chosen for school duty have been well accepted.

Fears expressed early on that police in schools had the potential to turn institutions of learning into institutions of incarceration proved unfounded. To the contrary, having police assigned to schools has had the kind of calming effect that a patrol car driving through an already-quiet neighborhood can have.

In recognition of this, and in the aftermath of the recent school mass murder in Connecticut, the Havre de Grace City Council has agreed to have the city police department assign two more school resource officers to schools in the city.

The move, coupled with general fears related to the Connecticut tragedy, has put the issue of more school resource officers on the minds of elected officials elsewhere in Harford County. County Council President Billy Boniface said he is warm to the idea, though the finances need to be reviewed. Aberdeen has two school resource officers, and the city manager said last week that it's worth talking about whether more are needed.

Boniface's concerns about the cost of more school resource officers is a legitimate one that needs to be addressed. Simply increasing staffing levels may not be the best approach. It might be better to look at the numbers and make decisions. With a population of a little less than 250,000 people, Harford County has about 122,000 people who go to work every day, mostly during the day.

That leaves about 128,000 people who aren't employed, and about 38,000 of them, or about 30 percent, are at school during the day. That doesn't even count the 5,440 teachers and staff. In aggregate, more than 17 percent of the county's total population can be found in public schools during the school day.

Given the concentration of the citizenry in our schools during the day, a better question than are more school resource officers needed might be why haven't more police been on patrol in our schools all along?

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