City wants to maintain campus police presence

COSTA MESA — Despite fears that the city would make cuts to police officers stationed on school campuses, or try and replace them with non-sworn officers, an elected official said Monday that the council would actually like to maintain and expand the program.

Councilman Steve Mensinger said the city wants to supplement the Student Resource Officer, or SRO, program, with sworn reserve officers to fill in the current officers' four-day a week schedule.

"The main focus is to have 100% coverage," Mensinger said.

The program is a joint venture by the city and the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to provide police patrols at Estancia High School, TeWinkle Middle School and the adjoining Costa Mesa middle and high school campuses.

The officers work with students and staff to help prevent crime and gang violence on campus, and handle any criminal activity that happens.

Currently, there are two full-time sworn officers — one at the combined Costa Mesa middle and high school campus, the other at Estancia and TeWinkle — who work four, 10-hour shifts a week.

The city is looking into using sworn reserve officers to fill in on the fifth day, or possibly even more, Mensinger said.

"The schools are open five days a week," Mensinger said. "Why wouldn't you want coverage five days a week?"

The reserve officers will also be able to stand in for the full-time officers when they are sick or on vacation, said city Chief Executive Officer Tom Hatch, adding the campuses usually go unpatrolled during those times.

The city would pay the difference for the additional reserve officers out of the 73,000 hours budgeted for reserves, Hatch said. Reserve officers are paid $28 an hour.

Hatch also said the city is asking the Police Officers' Assn. to consider changing the SRO shifts to five eight-hour days to better fit the school schedule. The association would have to agree to part with the four, 10-hour shifts the officers currently work.

City staff will work with each school to determine how to best meet their needs, Mensinger said.

School board President Walt Davenport said he likes the idea of maintaining the two sworn officers and the additional patrol hours would give the schools more coverage, especially at the middle school campuses.

The school board authorized acting Supt. Paul Reed June 14 to renew the district's agreement with the city to pay for half the costs, up to $187,250, of two sworn officers.

The school trustees were concerned last week that the city would reduce its sworn officers to unsworn reserves — a money-saving option listed in the council's June 14 study session agenda. Unsworn officers cannot make arrests and many cannot carry firearms.

The trustees vehemently denounced the option, stating unsworn officers wouldn't be able to fulfill the duties of the SRO without a gun or a patrol car. They directed Reed not to enter into an agreement unless the officers were sworn.

Mensinger maintained Monday that it was always his position to increase the officers' presence with sworn reserves.

Whether the council will move forward expanding the SRO program, or revert to the staff recommendation, is still up in the air until the council votes Tuesday, said school board Trustee Katrina Foley.

Foley, a former city councilwoman, said she doesn't think the council will be able to keep the sworn officers on campus if they move forward with major cuts to the Police Department.

"The fact of the matter is, if you make significant cuts to the police officers, there is no way to keep the SROs," Foley said.

The city will vote on an agreement with the school district at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Council Chambers in City Hall, 77 Fair Drive.

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