Finding police officers - and keeping them - has been a problem for the Ceres Police Department, which won approval last week to add a fourth School Resource Officer (SRO) subsidized by the Ceres Unified School District.
Neighboring cities and counties often pay better salaries and offer more desirable places to live, said Police Chief Brent Smith.
"I've got four empty positions and I'm having a hard time filling them," said Chief Smith. "Modesto and the S.O. and everybody else are about 20 people down each so it's very difficult to fill these jobs right now."
The paradox is that police academies are full.
"Usually if they're a good recruit, have a good background, they can pretty much choose where they want to work. They'll tend to go to the higher paying or the better living locations than the Central Valley. Once you get through Modesto and Turlock and all those cities that pay more than Ceres, we're like the last on the list."
Adding to the manpower shortage is that Smith has had to release officers from probation for a variety of reasons.
"If they're not going to do the job well to our standards at the Police Department then we don't keep them here past probation," said Smith. Issues that come up included bad report writing, bad driving or failure to meet basic responsibilities.
Smith is scrambling to try out new strategies, such as sending new recruits to the local Police Academy for the first time in about 15 years and testing out advertisements in city organization and police labor union magazines. He has until the new school year to hire someone to fill the new SRO position or hire within the department.
"We just have to be open-minded and keep working hard to get people to do this job," said Smith.
The Ceres Unified School District's board and the City Council agreed to hire the fourth SRO to be posted at junior high and elementary schools in Ceres.
The three SROs currently employed work mostly at the Ceres and Central Valley high schools and at the Endeavor/Argus High School campus. Chief Smith said the three have had little time to spend at the junior highs and the elementary schools. The addition of a fourth SRO, he said, will allow the Ceres Police Department to have a presence on Mae Hensley Junior High, Cesar Chavez Junior High and Blaker-Kinser Junior High.
The fourth SRO would also be able to provide coverage each Friday when two of the School Resource Officers are on days off. In addition, during summers when school is out, the city is able to utilize the officers to fill vacancies and absences.
"We have a really good relationship with the school district and our SRO program is running very good," said Chief Smith. "I like to have our officers on campus, get to know the students and be just good mentors and be approachable by the students. These days I think that's important because if anything is going to go down negative in the school I want the officers to be approachable so they can find out the information as well."
Smith said his department tends to let CUSD exact its own discipline instead of using the penal system.
"You do want to try to keep the students interested in school. You don't want to just kick them out of school."
SROs are also armed with handguns and AR15s to respond to any campus shootings and "keep the school safe," said Smith.
Under a two-year agreement with the city starting on July 1, CUSD will pay the city no more than $550,000 for the four SROs. The fully burdened cost for the full calendar year for the officers for fiscal year 2018/19 is approximately $640,000 for the four officers assigned to the SRO position.
SROs are typically on campus to:
• Protect lives and property;
• To provide law enforcement expertise to administrators;
• Provide information and knowledge gained as a result of gang and drug information received through law enforcement training to administrators;
• Receive information from administrators regarding student discipline under the Education Code and District Board Policies and Administrative Regulations;
• Receive information from administrators regarding the occurrence of a crime or likelihood of the occurrence of a crime being committed on, or adjacent to, schools;
• To enforce federal, state and local criminal laws and ordinances, and to assist CUSD officials with the enforcement of their policies and administrative regulations regarding student conduct;
• Investigate criminal activity committed on, or adjacent to, district property;
• Counsel students in special situations, such as students suspected of engaging in criminal misconduct, when requested by the principal;
• Answer questions that students may have about California criminal or juvenile laws;
• Assist other law enforcement officers with outside investigations concerning students attending the school(s);
• Provide security for special school events or functions, at the request of the principal.