Hillsboro School District one of few to form police force
On his business cards, Alex Oh is listed as the Hillsboro School District's new director of public safety, but in the eyes of the state of Oregon, Oh has another job title that better reflects his day-to-day responsibilities:
He's chief of police.
Last fall, the Hillsboro School District launched its own police department, the Hillsboro Department of Public Safety, tasked with keeping the district's 23,000 students and staff members safe.
"It's pretty special," Oh told the Tribune this month. "It's unique, it truly is."
Under Oregon law, school districts are allowed to form their own law enforcement agencies. It's a more common occurrence at large public universities, such as the University of Oregon, but a handful of Oregon K-12 schools have taken advantage of the law, hiring a sworn police chief as the head of district security.
Oh is the only sworn officer on the force, but he oversees a team of unarmed security staff and night patrol monitors who respond to alarms on evenings and weekends.
The department even has its own squad car, of sorts, donated by Dick's Auto Group. HDPS can be seen on patrol nights and weekends across the district.
A former sergeant and 20-year veteran of the Hillsboro Police Department, Oh came to Hillsboro School District in August. For the past several years he oversaw the HPD's school resource officers — eight sworn officers who spend time at district schools, forming relationships with students and addressing issues on the campuses.
As a cop, Oh can still make arrests and write tickets. He expects to help conduct internal investigations inside the school district and respond to threats made against schools, but his priority isn't solving crimes. Rather, he wants to focus on preventing crimes from occurring in the first place.
"We're not going to go undercover or anything," Oh said. "We're trying to be proactive. It's not about intervention it's about prevention."
Oh's job covers it all, he said. For the past few months, he has been working to craft policies on everything from snow days to school evacuations and human resources issues.
With several new schools in the works over the next several years, Oh said he'll look at building design in order to maximize safety and security.
"It's a bit like drinking water from a firehose," said Rick Puente, Oh's counterpart at the Beaverton School District, which launched its own in-house police department nearly a decade ago. "Safety encompasses every aspect of a school district, from staff and students, to maintenance, transportation, personnel [and] facilities."
On the surface, Oh said, students likely won't notice much of a difference in how the new program approaches school safety, but behind the scenes, the district will be able to focus on safety in a way it hasn't before.
"Having an in-house safety team that knows our policies and is dedicated to doing things the Hillsboro way means you'll get better results," Oh said. "We know the properties and what's going on."
Puente said that school security issues have changed in the last few decades — school shootings are a tragic example — and districts now need to be ready for just about anything.
"School safety is bigger than a fire drill, an earthquake drill or a bus drill," he said. "When evil wants to do evil, evil will do evil. It is how well we are trained and prepared as a school district, as administrators, as staff, as students, that will determine how much damage evil does."
All law enforcement agencies must be certified through the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. DPSST Director Eriks Gabliks said policing in schools presents special challenges for law enforcement. In many ways, he said, it makes sense for schools to employ their own police.
School districts are like cities within cities, Gabliks said.
"They have dozens of buildings, with thousands of people. They get great service from their city police department, but they can't be on campus all the time, and they don't know the insides and outsides of the district like employees do.
"Especially when you're talking about Beaverton and Hillsboro, two very large districts. They have thousands of staff and students and hundreds of thousands of square feet of buildings to pay attention to."
Oh works as a liaison between the school district and the local police department, Gabliks said, finding ways for the two agencies to work together.
"It's like having someone that can interface with the city and the school district about what's happening," said HDS Executive Director of Operations, Casey Waletich.
The idea isn't without precedent.
Portland had a similar program for years, Gabliks said, but now contracts with Portland Police Department directly on security issues.
Cost is a major consideration for having these sorts of programs, Gabliks said, but Waletich said Hillsboro isn't worried. In fact, forming the police agency is expected to save the district money.
For years, the district has hired third-party security firms to respond to late-night alarm calls at the district's schools.
But the contract proved too expensive after the district was forced to cut millions from its budget last year, Waletich said.
"We were easily spending half-a-million dollars a few years ago on private security," Waletich said.
According to the district, forming its own police agency will save the district about $150,000 a year in expenses.
Having district security be overseen by a sworn police officer has other advantages, said Puente, who came to the Beaverton School District six months ago.
"It allows for better communication all around." Puente said. "There is a collaboration when it comes to safety. As sworn officers, we can retain our relationships with law enforcement and first responders."
Gabliks said he has had several conversations with school districts about starting police agencies in the past few years. The Salem-Keizer School District — the second largest school district in the state — is considering a similar model, but Gabliks stressed the program likely won't work everywhere.
"Every community is looking at ensuring the safety of their students, staff and guests," Gabliks said. "I think every school district is looking at this as a possibility, and they have been for years, but I don't think you'll find a 'one size fits all' approach to school safety."
Forming law enforcement agencies from scratch doesn't come without risk. School districts must ask hard questions about whether they want to have sworn police on the district payroll, Gabliks said, because they take on increased liability when officers make mistakes.
"When an officer takes action, but makes a false arrest, that's now managed by the district," Gabliks said. "They become a school employee. That also means that when you are looking at the school's budget you'll have to pay not only for teacher salaries and sports equipment, but guns? Bullets? Those are things that you'd think a district would traditionally worry about having."
Despite the challenges, Puente said he expects more and more school districts to adopt this model of policing over the next few years.
"They are realizing that this position has the ability to bridge the gaps that have not been bridged before," Puente said. "When you build relationships, you build trust. You build communication. And when it comes to safety, you all want to be on the same page."
By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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