News of the murder of a student on the grounds of an Edmonton high school earlier this month has shaken Albertans. This sort of violence is tragic and unacceptable, and the family of the victim deserves justice. A school should be a safe place, which has led some to question whether the school board’s freeze of the school resource officer (SRO) program should be re-evaluated.
Originating in Edmonton school boards in 1979 (and even earlier in Calgary school boards), the SRO program is based on a community policing approach. At its core, community policing aims to establish trust and ultimately reduce crime through visibility. Research shows that a visible presence, such as patrol, reduces crime.
But research also shows that the presence of a uniformed security guard reduces crime.
Using security agents for patrol has worked out well across the pond — use of a police-styled security firm in London has resulted in significant reductions in crime in all areas where they operate. For instance, after eight months patrolling a single neighbourhood, crime rates there dropped by 43 per cent.
If reducing crime is the goal, then using licensed private security personnel is one way to achieve that goal while also cutting costs.
Police officers require a specialized combination of physical, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills for which they receive extensive training. Yet, it is estimated that less than 10 per cent of the tasks police officers carry out are highly demanding of all of these skills. Patrolling, which is equated with a visible presence, certainly does not require all of this extensive training. A security guard in Alberta, who must have a licence, specific training, and no criminal record, has limited powers of arrest, search, and detention, but still does prevent and respond to antisocial behaviour and crime.
In the case of school patrol and the goal of reducing crime through visibility, is an SRO — who is a sworn police officer — really the right candidate for the job?
In 2020, each Edmonton Public Schools (EPSB) school with an SRO spent almost $68,000 per officer. The salary of an SRO is shared by the police force and school board. For the 10 academic months of the year, the split is even, while for July and August, the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) picks up the full tab. Thus, the full salary of an SRO is estimated to be approximately $163,000 per officer.
In contrast, a licensed security professional in the province of Alberta can be expected to earn a salary of about $53,000.
The EPS has for years been struggling with swelling costs and has tried to harmonize fiscal responsibility and the need to fight crime. In fact, the EPS saw its budget slashed by $11 million for 2022. Considering these cuts, opportunities for savings should be welcomed. In a 2021 study, the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI) showed that there are multiple areas where private security personnel supplementing the police could result in enormous savings and enhanced public safety.
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On the school board’s end, total EPSB costs for the SRO program amounted to over $1.2 million in 2020. Again, as security personnel cost a fraction of what officers cost, the savings could be huge for school boards as well. In a season of budget cuts and fiscal pressures, school boards could be using this money to fund additional teachers or to aid in the implementation of the new curriculum.
The SRO program, moreover, has been criticized for not being utilized as a community policing tool, but rather as a “school-to-prison pipeline.” We need to remember that the goal is crime prevention, not criminalization.
If visibility and patrol in schools reduces crime, then acknowledging and utilizing the resources and support available through highly trained and qualified security personnel is an absolute must. The safety of our children and the sanctity of their learning environment must be a priority.
Krystle Wittevrongel is a Public Policy Analyst at the MEI. The views reflected in this opinion piece are her own.