Hamilton County sheriff's SRO cuts debated

photo Deputy Nathan Sampley of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department watches as students file out of the cafeteria after lunch in this file photo.
photo Sheriff Jim Hammond.

No Hamilton County sheriff's school resource officers are wandering the hallways of Howard School, Washington Alternative School, East Ridge Middle School or Ooltewah Middle School this fall.

Sheriff Jim Hammond blames the recession for only having 16 county officers in schools and two overseeing them. But Hamilton County commissioners question his reasoning when the budget they approved at the end of June allotted salaries for Hammond's full request of 23 individually named school resource officers.

They say Hammond's decision to remove officers is another instance of straying from his approved budget. Two years ago commissioners gave Hammond the green light and funds to add two additional, a total of 25, county SROs. But this year's request shows he never filled the positions.

"His idea of a budget is give me the money and I'll play with it any way I want to," said Fred Skillern, Hamilton County commissioner.

But Hammond said he had to pull officers from schools to put on patrol and that he has wide discretion in where his deputies work.

"I know I get that approved by them, where I put them is up to the sheriff," Hammond said.

Though Hammond oversees most of the SROs, four are provided by municipal police departments. The Chattanooga Police Department stations an officer at Brainerd High and Howard, East Ridge provides a shared officer at the middle and high school, and Signal Mountain provides an officer at the mountain's middle/high school. The Hamilton County Department of Education funds two of those county SRO positions with grant money.

Hammond, commissioners and school leaders aren't questioning the value of the program.

Boyd Patterson, coordinator of the Chattanooga Area Gang Task Force, said "school resource officers are key."

He said SROs are the first line of defense in identifying the students who are at risk or on the verge of becoming so.

"They are uniquely positioned to play an incredible role in stopping kids from joining gangs in the first place, as well as helping kids who have already made their decision," Patterson said. "Wherever the money comes from, those positions need to be in as many schools as Hamilton County can possibly afford."

The sheriff's approved list of 23 SROs includes two officers who oversee the program but aren't assigned to a school and another, Jeff E. Baker, who is under indictment and isn't currently on the payroll, though he could return there if acquitted, Hammond said.

Even Commissioner Chester Bankston, a frequent supporter of Hammond, questioned the sheriff's cuts to the SRO program before Wednesday's commission meeting. Bankston lost an SRO in his district from Ooltewah Middle School, which had 723 students on the first day of school.

Hammond defended his decision to keep two officers at East Hamilton Middle-High and remove one from Ooltewah Middle. On Monday, 1,841 students attended East Hamilton.

One of Hammond's criteria for assigning SROs was anticipated enrollment, he said. The other is the count of criminally related incidents.

But he's removing officers from two schools with some of the county's highest incident rates in 2010-11, sheriff's records show.

Howard saw 70 misdemeanor and 12 felony arrests, more arrests in both categories than any other school. Howard still has its Chattanooga officer stationed there.

Nonetheless, Principal Paul Smith said there were days last year the school needed both officers -- like when an SRO left to testify in court or process an arrest. Howard had 523 students on Monday's first day.

"When one leaves, it's always good to have one remain in the building," he said.

Records also show Washington had more calls for c service in 2010-11 than any other school with a sheriff's officer presence. The school registered 415 calls for service, 15 citations, 14 juvenile arrests, 10 misdemeanor arrests and one felony arrest.

The school has no officer now, but Principal Rodney Knox is hopeful an officer will be brought back.

"It's important because the potential of the students," he said. "The potential for outbreaks is much higher with our students."

Hammond said he didn't put an officer at Washington Alternative School because the school usually doesn't start with high enrollment. He said he might add one later in the year. The school system sends students to Washington for behavioral problems, such as drugs and violence, at other schools.

"Washington is probably the best-resourced school in the county," Hammond said. "I can't justify tying up an SRO there."

Hammond notes that he's not legally required to provide SROs. He said he's honoring an agreement of previous Sheriff Billy Long, who committed to staff 14 school officers.

School board member David Testerman, a former principal, said he thinks the school system is being pulled into the middle of a political battle, but he's hopeful more SROs will be restored.

"I think you're going to see this community come through with some SROs," Testerman said.