It’s been about 14 years since Oxford had a school liaison officer serving and protecting its student population, but that could change later this year.
Last week, the township board voted 6-1 to amend the 2016 law enforcement services agreement with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office to add a patrol investigator, who would serve as the school liaison officer.
The township was already planning to add a deputy to its substation in January 2017 as promised to voters when the current police millage passed in November 2014.
Instead of assigning this officer to road patrol, officials decided to have him work in the schools and start in August.
This position is contingent on the school district approving its portion of the funding for it as part of its 2016-17 budget, which is currently being drafted.
In their motion, township officials agreed to pay two-thirds of the $135,408 cost for this officer, which includes a vehicle. The school district is expected to cover the other third.
Oxford Schools asked the township to “partner” in this cost-sharing arrangement via a March 29 letter from Sam Barna, assistant superintendent of business and operations.
For nine months out of the year, the liaison officer would work within the school district investigating cases, providing extra security, making presentations to students, working traffic detail in school parking lots and covering special events.
“Whatever their needs are for that nine months, he would try to fulfill them,” said Sheriff’s Lt. Scott Patterson, commander of the Oxford Township substation.
During the other three months (summer), he would investigate cases as part of the substation’s detective bureau.
Township Supervisor Bill Dunn told his board the district has already interviewed and selected the officer it wants.
“The reason being is these people that are qualified and want to become school liaison officers get picked over pretty quick by the school districts,” he explained. “The earlier they do it,” the better the choice.
Dunn noted the district’s choice, Deputy Jason Louwaert, spent seven years working in the Oxford substation’s detective bureau.
“He does have plenty of experience,” he said.
But Trustee Sue Bellairs, who cast the lone dissenting vote, was leery of partnering with the district. “Did the school (district) give us any assurance that they’re not going to drop out in the middle of it and then Oxford Township is stuck with that?” she asked.
“This just kind of came up,” Dunn replied. “We’ve had very limited talks with them, but they have shown interest in doing this program. I would assume if they do it for a year, they would follow through. They will be billed.”
Superintendent Tim Throne told this reporter “it is definitely our goal” to have a liaison officer, but first, the funding question must be settled.
“Really, what it boils down to for us is finding that additional money, making sure it’s in the budget and then bringing that before the (school) board and having that approved as a part of the 2016-17 budget (in June),” he explained.
Barna has just started meeting with principals and department heads as part of building next year’s budget, according to Throne.
Although he’s “very optimistic” the district will be able to swing the necessary funding, Throne doesn’t wish to count his chickens before they’re hatched and call it a “done deal” at this point.
Throne fully supports having a liaison officer because he sees it as “another level of safety and security” the district can provide for students.
“I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
As for Jim Rourke, the district employee who handles security at OHS, Throne said he does an “awesome job” and “we have no intention of getting rid of” him. It’s just that “the liaison can do things that Jim can’t” as a certified, active law enforcement officer.
A school liaison officer can write police reports, conduct investigations, submit his findings to the county prosecutor’s office and obtain warrants.
Even though the liaison officer would be based at the high school, he would serve the entire district, which includes the middle school and five elementary schools.
Throne views having a liaison officer as a way to “reach out” to younger students and help cultivate a positive image of law enforcement personnel in their minds.
“We don’t want our students fearing the police or thinking the police are always bad because they write tickets,” he said. “They’re there to keep us safe and support us.”
Patterson is pleased the township and district are working together on this. He’s been a strong proponent of having a liaison officer for a number of years.
“This gives you a closer working relationship with the school system,” Patterson said. “Having that relationship where you’re there every day is invaluable.”
Being in the schools allows the liaison officer to build relationships with students and earn their trust. This can be helpful in obtaining information about potential safety threats and crimes, which gives law enforcement personnel a better opportunity stop things before they happen as opposed to “just reacting after the fact,” according to the lieutenant.
“What more valuable (a) commodity do we have than our children?” Patterson said.