Do Bainbridge schools need a police officer?

A last-minute grant opportunity could help fund a police officer to be stationed full-time in the school system, but the opportunity raised concerns for council members who aren’t sure that more police are what the community wants.

At Wednesday’s meeting the council couldn't reach a majority vote to authorize the Bainbridge Island Police Department to apply for a federal COPS Hiring Program grant that could provide 100 percent funding for salary and benefits of a full-time, entry-level officer for three years.

At the conclusion of the federal funding, the city would have to retain, and pay salary and benefits for a minimum of one year for the officer.

The vote failed 3-3 with councilors Debbi Lester, Bill Knobloch and Kim Brackett voting no. Bob Scales was absent. Supt. Faith Chapel said she would gauge school board support at Thursday’s meeting. If a general consensus of support was made then she hopes the council will reconsider its vote before the May 25 grant deadline.

BIPD Cmdr. Sue Shultz discovered the grant possibility earlier this week and contacted Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer and Chapel in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting.

Bauer said that if the city applied and was awarded the grant it would add the entry-level officer to staff and look internally to see which officer had the best skills set to be permanently based in the school department as a school resource officer. The officer's responsibility would be to develop relationships with the students, and help build a more positive police perception in the community.

With the impending deadline Chapel talked with council first, in hopes of getting its approval, before the Thursday school board meeting.

Several councilors expressed concerns that the community would not be made aware of the information, and a more in-depth conversation was necessary in regards to the current budget situation at the city.

“We don’t know if another officer on the force, or an officer in the school is something this community wants,” said Councilor Debbi Lester. “Personally I don’t think this was vetted properly and I couldn't support it.”

Lester said that although she supports the concept of community oriented policing services she thinks it should be the duty of every police officer, and not the sole responsibility of one officer.

She was also concerned that the administration didn't have clear answers as to whether the police guild contract increase or potential COLA increases would be the responsibility of the city, and what those costs could entail.

“Would the council really decide to increase the police department at a time when we cut the overall number of City employees?,” said Lester. “Council needs to first follow through with the commitment it made last year to do a best practices review of the police department.”

Lester said any future funding or grant applications should be focused on covering costs of a review or  sensitivity training for the police in areas like domestic violence, effective youth interactions and community engagement.

Councilor Kim Brackett said that she wanted to know the school board opinion and felt it was a step outside of her own duties as a council member to make a decision on something that was not properly vetted through the school board outlet, parents and the community.

Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos supported the vote because she said that the council has been concerned with the strained relationship between BIPD and the community for years, and in particular with teens perception about cops in the community.

“Basically what we would really like is to improve the trust in that relationship going both directions through a community-based collaboration,” said Hytopoulos. “Getting a cop in the school would help kids get to know an officer as a human being instead of a one-sided relationship through the patrol window.”

Hytopoulos said that although there is a perception in the community that the BIPD is overstaffed, there have been objective studies showing the contrary compared to other cities of similar size, she said.

Hytopoulos also said that if the city is still in a budget crisis at the end of the four years then they canchoose to let go of the officer at that time.

“Getting three years for the price of one is a deal that I didn’t think we could pass up for this community,” said Hytopulos.

The BIPD currently has 21 sworn officers and between 24 and 25 police vehicles according to Shultz at Wednesday’s meeting.

Chapel said that school resource officers have been a part of the BIPD in the past depending on funding, but in recent years they have been absent because of the financial crisis facing the city.

Chapel said that when she arrived at the school district in 2001 they were just finishing a pilot project after an officer was stationed with grades 5-8, which was a positive experience.

She said that the discussion was brought up again between 2004 and 2005 about the possibility of finding a joint funding opportunity between the city and BISD to pay for an officer to be permanently stationed in the schools.

Chapel said she plans to discuss the opportunity at Thursday’s school board meeting during her superintendent’s report.

The council did approve the BIPD to apply for the 2011 Secure our Schools (SOS) federal grant, which would fund up to 50 percent of the costs to install security measures like cameras, metal detectors and

other safety features.

Chapel said the school district was already in the process of updating security features in the school and if awarded the grant it could use

federal money instead of the school money allocated for the upgrades.

Approximately $13 million in federal funding will be available under SOS funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Shultz was not available for comment prior to press time.

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