Saline City Council Approves Agreement to Place Police Officer in City Schools

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Pittsfield Police Officer Lamar Gassaway hugs a 2022 Graduate of Saline High School during the graduation ceremony this year.

Saline City Council voted 5-1 to approve an agreement with Saline Area Schools providing a police officer for schools within the city.

The school district will reimburse the city for 75 percent of the cost of wages and benefits for a full-time, senior-level police officer. The city will be responsible for the remaining costs.

The position would start July 1.

The officer will patrol school district property during regular school hours while school is in session and will also patrol special events, including but not limited to sporting events and other ceremonies. The district's schools in the city are Saline Middle School, Liberty School/Saline Alternative High School, and Woodland Meadows, Heritage and Pleasant Ridge elementary schools.

Beyond security and emergency response, the officer is expected to develop relationships with administrators, teachers, students and other community members.

Saline Area Schools and Pittsfield Township have a similar agreement for a school resource officer at Saline High School. 

During the summer months, the officer will revert to regular city patrol.

The deal was recommended by Saline Police Chief Marlene Radzik. Saline Area Schools Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis also spoke in favor of the proposal to council.  The proposal was approved by a 5-1 vote, with Councillor Jim Dell'Orco voting no. 

One of the primary concerns of council was adding another police officer position at a time when the department is struggling to find officers. Currently, the department is down two officers and Officer Mike Snook is scheduled to retire early in 2023. Both Councillor Janet Dillon and Dell'Orco expressed concern with investing in a new position while the department was down officers.

Chief Radzik said the department is having better luck identifying candidates since the department began posting ads on the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement job board. She said the department was conducting two interviews this week.

Dell'Orco noted that the high school was covered by Pittsfield and asked why an officer was needed in the middle school and elementary schools. Dell'Orco also pointed out the district hired recently-retired SPD detective Don Lupi to work in the district as "community liaison." In that role, Lupi is expected to build relationships with the students and staff and help the district implement a comprehensive security plan.

"So I guess I'm struggling to understand why we need two SROs. (The city schools) have kids that are basically five to 14 years of age and it sounds like you've already got community liaisons in place for security needs," Dell'Orco said. "I must say I echo some of Council Member Dillon's concerns about this not really adequately addressing the staffing issues we're facing with respect to the citizens of Saline."

Ellis said half of the district's students are in Pittsfield and half are in Saline. Ellis said that whether or not there's an SRO, policing matters occur in the schools - especially at the middle school and alternative high school at Liberty.

Ellis said there are jurisdictional issues that prevent the Pittsfield SRO from coming to Saline schools and handling some issues.

Ellis said that children in Saline's schools deserve police services as much as other residents.

"Our kids are residents, too," Ellis said. "And so I would think that we would want to take care of them as well."

Radzik said the SRO would be part of trying to get a solution to traffic congestion near the middle school.

It's not the first time the district has had a Saline Police Department resource officer in its buildings. The department had an officer working in the city's district schools before the pandemic before the district removed funding for the job.

Mayor Brian Marl expressed support for the idea but also spoke of some skepticism because of the district's decision to pull funds previously. 

"If the individual is appropriately trained and provided the resources necessary to be their task I see it as beneficial to the city, the police department and to the school district," Marl said. "I also think getting that person in a classroom and interfacing with faculty and students in a positive way is profoundly beneficial."

But, Marl said, he wants to see commitment from the Board of Education.

"We will work to uphold our end of the bargain if you provide the 75 percent of funding on a consistent basis. I think it can be mutually beneficial but we just can't go through the dog and pony show if there's not a desire to fund this on an ongoing basis," Marl said.

Councillor Jack Ceo, a retired police officer, agreed that school resource officer positions can have benefits. Ceo said having officers who work in schools give police departments a higher level of intelligence in investigations.

An officer will be trained for the position. A selection committee will include representation from the police department, school district and either the city's or school district's diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

"I think it's important to get the right person and that position," Radzik said.

Over time, there have been changes in the kind of officer who serves in schools, Ellis said. He noted the role was once served by officers at the end of their careers. The district has often touted the relationships between students and Saline High School SRO Officer Lamar Gassaway. Ellis noted that at graduation last year, students requested the presence of Gassaway, who joined the diploma line and hugged many students as they cross the podium.

"I've got a picture of that I've got in my office because it speaks to how important those relationships are," Ellis said.

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"Our kids are residents, too," Ellis said. "And so I would think that we would want to take care of them as well“ Then why is the school footing 75% of their bill? Isn’t this a normal police activity? Even if it was a new program, the police are still paid for their time. It also starts in July, when schools are closed. With? 

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