Las Vegas Sun

October 31, 2014

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School Police in short supply

Even as the Clark County School District struggles to hire more teachers, it also is casting about for desperately needed campus cops.

Its police force is stretched thin, with 32 positions unfilled out of a department budgeted for 175 officers.

"I've never seen it this bad," said Martha Camman, who is in her 20th year with the district's human resources department. "We're losing people all over the place."

School Police are sworn peace officers and undergo the same academy training as Henderson, North Las Vegas and Boulder City's police. School Police enforce all state laws, although investigations of the most serious felonies are turned over to municipal police agencies.

The district is training, and then losing, officers to other agencies that pay better - including the Henderson Police Department, which has hired eight School District police officers in recent months.

The School District pays rookie officers $38,986 compared with $51,400 in Henderson and $46,035 for Metro Police.

If the positions aren't filled by the start of classes Aug. 30, Clark County School Police Chief Hector Garcia said he may shift officers from patrol units or investigations to school sites.

A full complement of officers is needed for the School District to properly respond to emergencies, Garcia said.

It's an issue close to his heart. Garcia is hosting a national conference in Las Vegas this week that will test how well emergency responders perform at schools in the event of a disaster. Thursday's drill at Spring Valley High School will involve 37 jurisdictions from around the country.

To prepare for the event, Garcia has spent the better part of a year reviewing the School District's own response plan to ensure everyone has a coordinated role, from classroom teachers to superintendent.

If there's a shortfall in the district's readiness, it isn't in planning or technology, Garcia said, but in police staffing levels.

"The struggle is getting enough qualified officers to ensure we have the kind of coverage we need in as many places as we need," Garcia said.

Camman said Tuesday that while she was helping organize Thursday's emergency drill, more than two dozen people filled out forms seeking information about the School District Police force.

An officer from Albuquerque said Clark County's pay is good compared to other agencies, Camman said.

Leonard Mitchell, a captain with the school police in Palm Beach, Fla., said his department is about 15 people short of a full roster of 200 officers. The starting salary for rookies there is $41,000, but Mitchell said the best school police officers are never in it for the money.

"It's about building relationships with students that help them learn and help you protect them," Mitchell said. "It's the purest form of community policing."

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