Dade schools police union publicizes crime in schools amid wage negotiations

The union representing schools police officers is reporting a marked increase in the number of guns seized from within Miami-Dade County Public Schools in the first half of the school year.

But police brass say those numbers are inflated, even if confiscations are trending upward.

The disconnect reflects a new and unusual union media campaign that is as much about contract negotiations as school safety.

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 133, which represents rank-and-file officers, sent out a press release announcing that late last week police confiscated a .25-caliber semi-automatic handgun from a middle school classroom. The gun, according to the union, was the 22nd firearm “confiscated during the 2013-2014 school year from students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.”

If accurate, that would represent a significant jump over recent years, when roughly 14 to 18 guns were confiscated each year both on- and off-campus by schools police. But schools police Capt. Ivan Silva said Monday that the official numbers aren’t so high — with 12 guns taken from students so far this year on-campus, and another five off-campus. That’s still trending higher than average, perhaps a nod to increased metal-detector sweeps and other enforcement and prevention efforts that began this year.

“I have no idea where they got that,” said Silva, a police spokesman.

The dispute over the touchy subject of guns in schools comes amid a union quest for better pay and a difference in opinion over how to publicize crime and arrests that take place just about every day in Miami-Dade’s 350 schools.

Union president Lt. Howard Giraldo said officers released the data so that a largely uninformed public would know about the daily trials schools officers face when policing Miami-Dade’s 350,000 public school students.

“People have a misconception that we don’t deal with real crime,” Giraldo said. “So we’re going to put it out there because we know the school district is not going to do it. We know the department isn’t going to do it.”

Last week, the union ramped up a media campaign and began contacting the press with alerts about what they said were gun confiscations, school lock-downs and the arrest of a burglar charged with stealing equipment from a Liberty City school.

Giraldo said most the information was obtained through public records requests from the department, although he said the number of gun confiscations was based on speculation from meetings with top brass. Two news releases documenting events from last week were removed from the union’s website Monday after the Miami Herald began asking questions about the information, but Giraldo attributed that to website problems.

“We’re not creating hysteria,” said Giraldo, who disputed that the campaign was a negotiating tactic. “We’re just making sure people understand what it is that we do.”

Schools police Capt. Silva said the department remains transparent and responsive to questions about incidents and records but focuses its news releases on positive news, such as officer trainings and turkey giveaways.

“We don’t have the resources available and in place to be providing press releases on a day-by-day basis as far as all incidents that occur in schools,” Silva said.

The union’s step of issuing its own news releases is unusual. For just about every police department, a media-relations office controlled by the police chief issues releases about crime and arrests that take place from day to day.

“I’ve never seen that, where the union takes on the department’s role,” said John Rivera, longtime president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. “If there’s something we find interesting, we will put out a press release. But the actual incidents and stuff like that, we don’t do that.”

Enid Weisman, head of human resources for Miami-Dade schools, called the union’s press releases “highly unusual.” She said salaries are currently under discussion.

“I don’t know where it’s coming from,” she said. “But we’ve always tried to do what’s right by our employees and we’re in the process of negotiating.”

Rookie Miami-Dade Schools Police officers earn a base salary of $39,099, which, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, is slightly more than Bradenton officers but less than Miccosukee police. Miami police start at $46,000. The district recently gave officers a pay bump and hired additional police, but Giraldo said schools police remain “drastically underpaid.”

As for the crime alerts, Giraldo said they will continue even after negotiations conclude. Silva said that’s OK, as long they get it right.

“If they want to put out press releases,” he said, “we’ll make sure whatever goes out is accurate.”