TAMPA BAY, FL — Tallahassee’s mandate that every school in Florida have an armed resource officer or guard this fall created a pair of unfunded mandates: one financial and the other one of manpower.
Not only are communities scrambling to find funding to pay for the thousands of new positions created by the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, but police department and sheriff’s offices are scrambling to find ways to staff schools with the new academic year fewer than 90 days away.
Even though many districts are choosing to place retired military or law-enforcement personnel in schools to satisfy the new law, it is expected to take years to find and train all of the new hires.
As a result, the new law is stressing an already-stressed system, where many law-enforcement agencies across the state already have dozens, if not hundreds of positions each they are trying to fill.
"Now that virtually everyone is hiring," said Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler, "there’s going to be a trickle-down effect with some agencies that don’t pay as well as some of the bigger ones.”
The Palmetto Police Department, whose starting pay is $37,675 a year, frequently loses officers to competing departments, such as the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, whose starting pay is 24 percent higher. The need to compete for officers has pushed salaries at the Hillsborough and Sarasota sheriff’s offices above $50,000 for starting deputies, approximately 35 percent more than Palmetto.
“When we lose somebody, it affects the entire department," said Palmetto Corporal Micah Mathews.
Tyler said the trickle-down is likely to impact the speed in which officers respond to calls as well as the experience of the department’s officer ranks.
But it isn’t just small departments that are feeling the pinch.
Requiring armed security in every Florida school, including elementary and middle schools, where there has never been a mass shooting in the state’s history, is forcing large cities and counties to immediately find dozens of officers to work 40 hours a week in a school, starting in August.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office told 10Investigates it would likely need to re-assign 60-to-80 deputies from their standard patrol responsibilities to county elementary schools this fall.
And the St. Petersburg Police Department plans on filling the immediate need with officers from its community policing unit, which responds to neighborhood and property crime issues, as well as from its dedicated gang unit.
UPDATE 5/15: Mayor Rick Kriseman announced Wednesday, due to community outrage, he is telling the Pinellas Co. School District that SPPD will not provide officers to the dozens of elementary schools in the city after all. The district will be responsible for filling the positions with only limited time before the start of school; hiring SPPD officers as outside detail remains a possibility.
But Chief Anthony Holloway said he hoped the impact wasn’t a long-term one, as school resource officers are eventually hired and he can hire more street cops — potentially from smaller departments, like Palmetto’s, where he has recruited a handful of officers in recent years.
"I’ll try to hire as many certified officers as I can, so I may find (officers in) one of those small agencies and say, ‘You want to come to St Pete?’"
Find 10Investigates’ Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips confidentially to email@example.com.
►Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the 10 News app now.