Miami-Dade political leaders want to develop a plan for putting police officers on all school campuses across the county.
Having sworn officers at all schools is a requirement under a bipartisan guns bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Friday, but Miami-Dade officials had already begun the conversation about how to make that happen. Besides beefing up police presence across all schools, elected officials want to bolster training across agencies and create a data-sharing partnership to identify potential threats.
The massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School spurred the new legislation, rekindled a national debate on gun laws and ignited a local conversation on how to prevent a similar incident across the bureaucracies in Miami-Dade County, from municipal halls to the the countywide police force.
Under the new law, the state will provide $162 million for school officers at public schools across the state. But even Miami-Dade’s cut of the newly allocated funds dedicated to enhancing school safety might not be enough to pay for at least one cop at every primary and secondary public school, as well as the interagency training envisioned by local leaders. And several officials want to make sure private schools are covered as well.
“We’re all advocating for the same thing,” said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “I think everyone recognizes that this very sad incident was a game-changer for everybody.”
The superintendent and many local politicians disapprove of the Legislature’s decision to fund the arming of school personnel — $67 million statewide that critics say dedicates too much money to arming people who are not sworn police officers. Officials across Miami-Dade are talking about reassigning municipal police officers to bolster school patrols. The school board has its own sworn police force and places armed officers at secondary schools, but not primary schools.
To patrol them all, several local governments seem willing to get their own cops trained and placed at schools.
“We’re going to have to sit with all municipalities and discuss how to best accomplish this task,” said Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Pérez.
The mayors of Miami, Hialeah, Miami Gardens and Miami Beach all spoke with Carvalho the night of the Parkland shooting, all agreeing that more police needed to be present at schools the following day. The superintendent said it soon became clear parents wanted the comfort of having additional cops all the time — a complicated proposition in a county like Miami-Dade that has so many local governments with different police forces, budgets and community needs.
“There are a lot of moving parts to it,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber. At a meeting Wednesday, the Beach commission was eager to finalize an agreement with the school board that would place Beach cops at the city’s six schools.
On Thursday, Miami commissioners learned that in the first year, it would cost the city about $25.2 million to place one new full-time officer in each of the 94 public and private schools in the city — not an insignificant number for the city. Police Chief Jorge Colina cautioned commissioners that on top of the costs, the officers would need special training — particularly not to be heavy-handed while handling behavioral issues.
“I would not want the added responsibility of having policemen inside schools,” he said. “Unless you have very specialized training, policemen are going to be policemen.”
Commission chairman Keon Hardemon expressed reservations about putting more officers on campuses for fear of disproportionately affecting minority communities. He said more police could mean more arrests for minor offenses at less-privileged schools, while the same behavior would likely be handled between principals and parents at wealthier schools.
“Every fight becomes an arrestable offense,” he said.
Carvalho said the additional officers will be tasked with providing security for teachers and students; they won’t be a new disciplinary arm to put kids in handcuffs over schoolyard scuffles. He was echoed by Edwin López, the deputy chief of Miami-Dade Schools’ police department, who told the Miami Herald that part of the increased collaboration has to include training for municipal officers on how to handle situations in a way that doesn’t end with students’ arrests.
“Our officers are trained on a daily basis to deal with what is in the best interest of the student,” he said. “Arresting a juvenile for a simple misdemeanor might prevent that juvenile from becoming an attorney, or from becoming a police officer.”
Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, a retired police officer, suggested having street cops do monthlong tours of duty at schools interspersed with regular patrol duty. Having a rotation that frequently put officers back on the streets would prevent them from getting too comfortable and letting their guard down, he said.
“We don’t want to make the mistake of having the officers just assigned to schools,” he said. “Complacency happens.”
Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates raised another concern that some larger cities will encounter — quick and clear communications across different radio frequencies. Miami Beach police officers and dispatchers are on a different frequency than the one used by school police, and he fears the difference will slow down response times.
On Wednesday, Oates said he asked Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett if he would allow officers at Beach schools to carry an additional radio so they could be on the same frequency as the local police force. Oates said Moffett declined.
On Friday, Carvalho said the radio frequency issue isn’t a “game-stopper” and could be resolved if the few cities with their own communications channels started using the more widely used county frequency, which is what the school board uses.
Fast communication lines should also be extended to private schools, some of which don’t have their own police, said Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.
“Private schools should be given police radios and trained to use them,” he said.
Besides more officers and more training, Carvalho emphasized the need for more free-flowing information between schools and local law enforcement on school emergency plans and any available information about potential threats — such as threatening or foreboding social media posts.
Because of existing agreements and compacts that are maintained between local governments and the school board, Carvalho says it shouldn’t be too difficult to get all agencies on the same page.
“It’s really about recalibrating some of the protocols and adding additional training in light of Parkland,” he said.
The superintendent and his top cops are expected to meet with other municipal leaders across Miami-Dade in the coming weeks.