Ex-officers form campus security unit

A former Costa Mesa police officer and a cadre of other law-enforcement veterans say they believe they've come up with a viable plan to prevent violence in schools

Jess Gilman, a 27-year police veteran, retired from Costa Mesa's department in October. He'd spent the past 17 years working as a school resource officer watching over Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools.

Two months after his retirement, when a gunman killed 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Gilman began thinking there had to be a better way to protect school campuses.

He didn't know it at the time, but the tragedy sparked the same response in the group of former police officers he's now working with at Irvine-based Evidence Based Inc.

"Newtown is a game-changer to protecting our schools," said John McLaughlin, a former Irvine officer and president of Evidence Based.

Since that winter, McLaughlin has been pulling together a management team to start a Campus Safety Solutions unit at Evidence Based.

With more than a century of experience among them, the five former cops are working to hire and train law-enforcement and military veterans and then deploy them to school campuses.

If the worst ever happens, they'll be tactically trained to step in, according to McLaughlin.

But the job of school safety officer entails more than that, he added. These people would assess threats reported by students, teachers and other staff and be able to decide whether a situation would be better handled by police or mental health services.

Evidence Based also employs a crew of social workers for officers to work with.

Ideally, the campus safety officers would prevent the violence before it happens by watching for warning signs, McLaughlin said.

"The best observers of behavior are former law enforcement guys," he said.

Having someone armed and highly trained on campus five days a week is key too, according to the management team.

"When there's a bad guy, we're going to give them the attention they deserve," Gilman said.

Campus Safety Solutions hasn't inked contracts with any schools yet, but McLaughlin said negotiations are being held with four districts.

He declined to specify the districts but said they are in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District considered using Evidence Based's service in Costa Mesa but decided against the idea as the end of summer approached.

Supt. Fred Navarro said at the time that he wasn't sure he wanted his district to be the first to use the service.

He also said the cost to hire a private company could be more than contracting with cities to provide officers on campus, but McLaughlin disputes that.

Cost is a key component of Evidence Based's service, he said. McLaughlin estimated that one of the company's campus safety officers costs $110,000 to $112,000 a year.

That price reportedly includes total compensation for the employee, insurance and equipment.

In the 2011-12 school year, Newport-Mesa paid about $180,000 to contract with Costa Mesa for one police officer.

In a move Evidence Based touts as the first of its kind, the company has partnered with Golden West College's Criminal Justice Training Center. Before stepping foot on campus, its officers will go through training that covers everything from tactical responses against active shooters to signs of mental health problems that could portend violence.

"Even though we are a private security firm, we are a private security firm unlike any other because of our training and our experience," Gilman said.

Joe Chirillo, a 32-year-veteran of policing who retired form the Beverly Hills Police Department as a lieutenant, said there's no comparison.

"It's like donuts and croissants," he joked.

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