By ABBOTT KOLOFF
HACKENSACK, N.J. (AP) — They get a little more than half the training of regular police officers, typically work part time for $15 to $20 an hour without benefits, and carry guns — and they might be patrolling the hallways of some North Jersey schools by the fall.
Special Law Enforcement Officers have been around for decades, bolstering police manpower at the Jersey Shore in the summer and conducting routine patrols for some departments in other parts of the state, including communities in Bergen and Passaic counties.
Now, as school officials struggle to expand security in an era of shrinking budgets and high-profile mass shootings, special officers are being considered for a new job. In one of several measures being considered across the state, law enforcement, municipal and school officials are discussing employing so-called Class II special officers in schools to provide security.
Police and school officials in Hackensack and Cliffside Park tell The Record (http://bit.ly/109p0mr) that they have had preliminary conversations about stationing Class II officers in school buildings. However, they said no decisions have been made, and the issue has yet to become the subject of a broad public debate. Elsewhere, officials in Manalapan recently hired two Class II officers to perform a variety of duties, including school security.
Joseph Abate, the superintendent of the Hackensack school district, said he would prefer to hire additional full-time school resource officers, but that Class II officers would be a more economical way to provide additional security in the high school and middle school.
"It is possible we'll get a greater bang for the buck," he said. "We could always use more security."
Discussions about school security, including the use of special or retired police officers as security guards, have taken on new urgency since the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December. They come as budget constraints have forced police departments to reassign full-time school resource officers because they are needed elsewhere.
A report issued this month by Governor Christie's task force on violence recommends a renewed emphasis on school resource officers, known as SROs, who receive a mandatory 40 hours of specialized training to work in schools and often develop a rapport with students.
Hackensack and Cliffside Park each have one full-time school resource officer, and school and municipal officials said the use of special police officers might enable them to expand security to additional school buildings while holding down expenses. Officials in Hackensack said the school district would be responsible for paying the officers for the time they are used in schools. In Cliffside Park, officials said they have yet to determine whether the school district or the borough would pay the special officers.
Last month, the Hackensack City Council approved the hiring of an unspecified number of Class II officers, who typically are limited to a 20-hour workweek and are required to turn in their guns at the end of the day. They would be added to a force that already includes 65 unpaid Class I officers, who are not authorized to carry guns. Known in the city as H-Cops, the Class I officers often are assigned to traffic control.
Class II officers receive much more intensive training than Class I officers — between 450 and 480 hours compared with about 100. That falls short of the 840 hours that Bergen County requires of regular police officers, although, like regular officers, they are required to complete a week of firearms training.
Hackensack's new police director, Michael Mordaga, said Class II officers will be a "significant tool" for the city, patrolling high-crime areas and providing courtroom security, freeing up regular police for more important duties. He said they also could have a place in the city's public schools. He said the decision to hire them was not driven by economics but acknowledged that cost was a factor.
"For the price of one police officer, we could get three," he said.
Frances Cogelja, who has two children in the Hackensack public district, said she is undecided about the potential use of special officers in the schools and wants to hear more. She said she is concerned about school security, but also about the relative inexperience of most Class II officers.
"You want to see the district doing everything it can to keep students safe," she said. "I don't want to see a tragedy because that officer is quick to pull out a firearm."
Blanche Stuart, president of the city's African-American Civic Association, said she and other residents she has spoken with don't yet know enough about Class II officers. "We need more details," she said, adding that she would support adding Class II officers if they improve school safety.
Special officers are supervised by a police chief, just like regular officers — and unlike retired police officers who are hired as armed guards to provide security in school buildings. Class II officers have all the powers of regular police, but only while they are on duty. They earn between $15 and $20 an hour in some places, which is the pay range being discussed in Hackensack, and serve as unpaid volunteers in others.
Special police officers have used the jobs as springboards to full-time police work, including five former Class I officers from Cliffside Park who are now training at Bergen County's police academy. New Jersey officials don't keep track of the number of special officers employed across the state, but records show police academies trained 631 special officers of both classes last year, a 28 percent increase over the previous year.
State law bars police departments from replacing regular officers with special officers, allowing their use only as a supplemental force.
James Ryan, a spokesman for the state Policemen's Benevolent Association, a union representing police officers, said his organization has seen only isolated abuses of the law. Officials with the PBA and the state Association of Chiefs of Police said they would prefer that Class II special officers be stationed in schools rather than retired officers or private security guards, who don't report to a police chief.
Chief Donald Keane of the Cliffside Park police, who began his career as a special police officer, said he wants Class II officers to receive training as resource officers in order to work in schools. He said that would make them "an integral part of the school community rather than just an armed guard."
But Keane noted that the law regulating their use includes restrictions that would make it difficult for them to function as school resource officers. Cliffside Park employs two Class II special officers, but state law allows just one of them to work full time. All Class II officers, with one exception per department, are limited to 20-hour workweeks.
A Cliffside Park school board member, Joseph Capano, said district officials have yet to decide how to proceed, but hope to have additional security measures in place for all of their schools by September. He said special police have been discussed, along with the use of retired officers.
Mordaga and Keane both said they would not favor using retired police officers to provide school security unless they are sworn in as special officers because retired officers don't have full police powers and don't report to a chief.
"How can you have anyone perform law enforcement duties and not be under a law enforcement agency?" he said. "That's not even feasible."
Richard Ney, the superintendent of both the Haledon and Manchester Regional High School districts, said $100,000 was set aside to hire a full-time resource officer for the high school this year after it went a few years without one. There are no plans for armed security at Haledon's elementary school, Ney said.
Haledon officials decided years ago not to use any of the borough's 22 Class II officers as school resource officers at Manchester because they are not much older than the students, said Mayor Dominick Stampone.
The governor's task force warned in its report this month that stationing armed guards in schools could add to students' anxiety about violence. However, it praised the use of school resource officers, saying they become part of the school community — teaching courses, for example — and gain students' trust. It opposed the use of armed guards who don't report to a police chief and noted that special police are not required to receive training as school resource officers.
The task force concluded that special officers or retired officers "may be a false economy" when compared with school resource officers.
Lt. Patrick Kissane of the Fort Lee police, who is the president of the state Association of School Resource Officers, said he believes Class II officers should be trained as resource officers if they work in schools. But he added that a special officer who lacks that training would be better than a security guard or retired police officer who reports only to school officials and not to a chief.
"We'd feel better about it than having a retired guy with a gun," he said.
Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.),Tags: