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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond answers questions during a news conference at the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Monday, March 8, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Note: This story was updated on March 10 to correct the timing of when school resources officers began working at Silverdale.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond provided an update on the staffing of school resource officers at a Monday news conference, saying that there are 10 SROs in the Hamilton County Schools system, 14 SROs working at Silverdale Detention Center and two new SROs in the final stages of the hiring process.

The SROs returned to schools are placed in schools with the most need, which is coordinated with the school superintendent. Additionally, new SROs are being offered a $2,000 hiring bonus after completing the application and field training.

"That's how much I want to try to fill those positions that are open," Hammond said.

In July, CoreCivic, the private company that previously operated Silverdale, decided not to renew its contract after its expiration at the end of the year. As a result, the sheriff's office took over the jail and began moving inmates from the downtown jail to Silverdale. Resource officers started working at Silverdale in January. 

Last month, Hamilton County Schools began reopening schools for in-person learning, and Hammond began redirecting some SROs back to schools. There were three SROs back in schools the first week of February and eight SROs back in schools last week.

"It caught me by surprise when the school board and the superintendent decided to return to the classroom," Hammond said. "I'm certainly in favor of that, I think kids ought to be in school, but it did put more of a burden on me, caught right at the time when I'm trying to fill positions to be able to protect the citizens from inmates, over 1,000 that are locked up and we certainly don't want walking the streets."

There was a shortage of school resource officers even before they were reassigned to Silverdale. At most, there were between 30 and 32 SROs across the county, less than half as many as it would take to put one SRO in every one of Hamilton County's 79 public schools.

In December 2019, the school district hired a coordinator of student safety along with school security officers to help bridge the gap due to staffing issues at the sheriff's office.

"We were fortunate that we had some pretty qualified applicants, former law enforcement, either retired law enforcement or other law enforcement agencies besides the police department deputies or patrolmen that applied and we were able to hire a few to fill in some gaps, but it's still not obviously where we would want it to be," said school board chairman Joe Wingate. "We're all hoping that we can get back to that spot and begin to have all of our schools staffed, so that's the hope and the goal."

The sheriff's office has about 50 open positions and is hiring SROs, correctional officers, road patrolmen and clerks. Hammond said of the more than 300 candidates interviewed in the past few months for positions, fewer than 10% met requirements because of previous drug or felony convictions or not meeting basic qualifications.

Beyond issues with qualifications, Hammond said hiring issues are related to a negative view of police officers and less interest in entering law enforcement among young people. He said the problem of the resource officer shortage won't be solved in a year, but that more SROs will return to schools as more personnel are hired at Silverdale.

"I would love to have SROs in every one of the schools, some of the schools I'd like to have a couple of SROs. That's not practical at this moment, but we will continue to work toward that goal," Hammond said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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