Spring Lake Park School District’s Westwood Middle School and Intermediate School will have a police liaison officer starting this fall.
The Blaine City Council unanimously approved this April 18, but had a split opinion on the timing for potentially adding a replacement officer on the streets.
School Board Chairperson John Stroebel said the board began actively discussing having a liaison officer at the Westwood campus about a year ago, although it had been discussed in passing for much longer.
“We’re excited about it. It’s long overdue,” Stroebel said.
Police presence in schools has been a hot topic since a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012. The officers do more than add a layer of security, however. They are the face of the police department.
Officer Dan Rice is in his first year at Roosevelt Middle School. Although one of his jobs is watching the students as they arrive and leave every day, his favorite part of the day is getting to talk with them at lunch.
Assistant Principal Mike Driscoll has been at Roosevelt for five years and said the previous liaison officer led multiple presentations covering topics such as Internet safety and health, and Rice said he would also do this.
Eighth-grade Roosevelt students Abbie Nyberg and Reid Peterson like having a police officer at their school because it makes it more secure in case something happens. They have also seen Rice break up fights.
Rice is aware that thefts of personal items such as cell phones or iPads or drug possession are issues that middle school liaison officers have to deal with from time to time and are not something only high schools have to deal with.
Stroebel said when these crimes happen, the liaison officer will have much more knowledge of the school, its staff and students than if it was a random responding officer.
Replacing the officer on the street
The council agreed that having a school liaison officer at the Westwood campus makes sense.
There are 2,214 students at the Westwood campus between the middle school for sixth- through eighth-grade students and intermediate school for the fourth- and fifth-grade students. The police department already has liaison officers at Centennial High School (2,200 students), Blaine High School (2,900 students) and Roosevelt Middle School (1,150 students).
“I don’t think there’s ever been one person on this council that has not been in support of this from the beginning,” Councilmember Wes Hovland said. “The discussion has been in regards to how we finance it.”
The Blaine Police Department is currently authorized to have 59 sworn police officers, although it is presently in the process of training a replacement for another officer who left and two others are on medical leave, according to Police Chief Chris Olson.
Olson’s policy is that school liaison officers must have at least three years’ experience with the Blaine Police Department. Rice has six years of experience.
Being on the street is a great learning experience for young officers that will be useful in becoming better communicators with school staff and students, Olson said.
“I think a seasoned officer will have the ability to do that better than an entry level officer,” he said.
By moving an experienced Blaine officer to the Westwood campus, one less veteran officer is patrolling the streets. There will also be no increase to the city budget unless they hire a new officer.
Although Hovland and Councilmembers Mike Bourke, Dave Clark and Russ Herbst support a liaison officer at Westwood, they do not want to hire a replacement patrol officer until the council has further budget discussions. Hovland’s amendment spelling this out passed 4-3.
“The amendment is not intended to say that we will not backfill this position,” Hovland said. “It’s just, do not backfill it at this time and look at it in the upcoming budget discussions.”
Mayor Tom Ryan and Councilmembers Kathy Kolb and Dick Swanson wanted the council to authorize hiring a 60th police officer so the department would at least not lose an officer on the street even though it would be someone new to the department.
“They are both important positions,” Ryan said. “This (school liaison officer) is important, but it’s also important that we have an officer on the street.”
City Manager Clark Arneson said the city had budgeted for 60 sworn officers last year, but the last position was never filled due to budget constraints. The council thus lowered the authorized number to 59 this year.
The city went from five to six patrol districts a few years ago and has been working on building up its force to adequately respond to calls in the additional district. Having one less officer would not eliminate the sixth patrol district, but it does impact service, Olson said.
“I see it as us repositioning in a very important area one of our officers, not necessarily taking one off the streets,” Bourke said.
He asked if this liaison officer could leave the school if backup was needed on a major call. Olson said they could do this.
Spring Lake Park School District Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg along with school boardmembers Amy Hennen and Colleen Vranish were joined in the audience by Chuck Holden, chief operations officer for the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
At the council’s request, Arneson invited representatives from the three school districts that cover Blaine because Hovland had talked about the possibility of school districts covering 100 percent of the school liaison officers’ costs the entire calendar year and not just the school year.
Hovland told ABC Newspapers that he was trying to spark a conservation on funding police liaison officers. It became clear to him that this was not the right time for this discussion, so he did not bring it up again at the April 18 meeting, he said.
Eric Hagen is at [email protected]