© 2021 WEKU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Education

JCPS already has a police department — in all but name

police.PNG
Jess Clark
/

They have arrest powers, they have badges and they’re sworn to Jefferson County Public Schools.

The JCPS Security and Investigations Unit has performed a law enforcement function for the district since the 1990s. But they’re missing from the current conversation about police in Louisville schools, reignited last month by Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields.

“JCPS has to have its own police department,” Shields said from the podium of Metro Hall, hours after the shooting death of 16-year-old Tyree Smith at a JCPS bus stop.

“We can’t sit here with our thumbs up our ass, do nothing different, and think we won’t be back at this podium,” she said. “So I can promise you I will be banging that drum loudly.”

Meet the Security and Investigations Unit

The district’s law enforcement agency, known as the Security and Investigations Unit, has 23 employees, 12 of whom are trained law enforcement officers sworn to JCPS, and four who are officers in training.

JCPS spokesperson Renee Murphy said these officers are certified, or will be certified, as “special law enforcement officers,” a distinct category of sworn officers with limited arrest powers. JCPS’ special law enforcement officers can only make arrests on JCPS property.

Murphy told WFPL News the special law enforcement officers JCPS hires are either certified police who have retired from municipal departments like LMPD, or they have 80 hours of Kentucky law enforcement training.

Many members of the security and investigations team spend significant time in schools. They collect information on students, and they pass information between the district and local law enforcement agencies, such as LMPD.

Despite already having these officers who provide some surveillance, Shields has argued a lack of “critical intelligence” is a reason for JCPS to bring more police into schools.

JCPS Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins told WFPL there are six “security monitors,” each with a designated “cluster” of schools they visit regularly.

Their role, Perkins said, “is to serve as a liaison between the schools and our municipal law enforcement agencies in the community.”

“They make their rounds to build those relationships with school staff,” Perkins said. “It may be sitting down and talking with administration, sharing information they’ve received, or information that might be relevant to current events going on.”

Sometimes, Perkins said, that information is about individual students.

“It could lend itself to that,” he said. “It just depends on the situation.”

Perkins said the district is planning to hire nine more security monitors, “just to add to our support for schools.”

In addition to the security monitors, JCPS has four “security investigators” — officers who support schools, local law enforcement agencies, and conduct investigations into criminal activity, Perkins said.

Members of the JCPS security and investigations team do not carry firearms or tasers, according to Murphy. Instead, their uniform includes a collapsible baton, pepper spray and, in some cases, handcuffs.

The security and investigations team is often on hand at school board meetings, along with one to six off-duty officers hired through Morgan Security Company, a private security contractor, according to Murphy.

Those off-duty officers come from a variety of local law enforcement agencies, including LMPD, the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

The district recently stepped up security presence and procedures after a man opposed to mask mandates allegedly went to JCPS’ Vanhoose Education Center with a gun and threatened Superintendent Marty Pollio.

Though its officers are sworn to JCPS, the state says the Security and Investigations Unit is not among the formal law enforcement agencies registered with the Department of Criminal Justice Training.

‘Security officers,’ not SROs

Members of the Security and Investigations Unit are not not school resource officers, or SROs, as defined by state law. JCPS calls them “security officers,” “district security monitors,” or “security investigators,” depending on their role.

Under Kentucky law, SROs are sworn law enforcement with 120 hours of specialized training over three years. That includes curriculum on youth mental health, diversity and bias awareness, and de-escalation strategies.

Many of those training requirements were added in a 2019 school safety bill state lawmakers passed in response to the 2018 deadly school shooting in Marshall County. That law also required local boards of education to hire an SRO for each campus “as funds and personnel become available.”

Under a state law passed in 2020, all SROs are required to carry a firearm, a statute many believe was aimed at JCPS, which was at the time considering creating its own force of unarmed SROs. Those talks were tabled, Pollio has said, due to the pandemic.

Some Louisville residents calling for SROs say they are needed to prevent school shootings, though there is little evidence SROs have prevented such events.

Local conservative activist Lance Pearson called the district’s current force of fewer than two dozen people “pathetic” for a school system with 155 school buildings and 96,000 students.

“Those…people are not even armed and they’re not even based in the schools. So when someone, if they were to show up to school with a gun, those people would have to commute to the school to deal with the emergency,” he said at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Meanwhile, students of color worry SROs will contribute to discriminatory policing in schools, and say they make them feel unsafe, especially students who have experienced trauma at the hands of the police.

Will JCPS bring back SROs?

Until a couple years ago, JCPS had 28 SROs through contracts with LMPD, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Shively and Jeffersontown. Those SROs answered to their respective local law enforcement agencies, and not the district — a sticking point for some board members who eventually voted to end SRO contracts.

In 2019, facing budget cuts and personnel shortages, LMPD pulled its 17 officers from JCPS schools. Then, in a split vote, the Jefferson County Board of Education decided not to renew contracts with the remaining law enforcement agencies that historically provided SROs.

Board members who voted against the contracts said they had concerns about racially-biased policing and criminalization of student behavioral issues. Some members who voted not to renew the contracts suggested they may be interested in a force of SROs who answered to the district, rather than various municipal law enforcement agencies.

Many district leaders have pushed back on Shields’ call for more police in schools. Pollio has said he plans to discuss school policing with the board, but he’s already skeptical JCPS would be able to recruit enough officers amid citywide law enforcement shortages.

As Shields continues her campaign for SROs, some, like JCPS teacher and protest leader Tyra Walker, have criticized her proposal as a deflection, noting Tyree was killed on a street corner, not in a school building.

“That’s for the city to protect that street,” Walker told WFPL last week.

If you appreciate access to this important content during this global pandemic, please help us continue to provide public service journalism and information to Central and Eastern Kentucky communities.