School patrol

Granite police force praised, criticized

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Granite District police officers Richard Bullock, left, and Brandon Singleton frisk Granger High students. Granite is the only district with its own department.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

The shooting climaxed a 20-minute, high-speed chase through Salt Lake City streets.

After a car carrying three burglary suspects crashed into a building, one of the men was shot in a scrap with a policeman. The officer says he fired in self-defense.

What makes the Oct. 20 shooting unusual is the officer was not with Salt Lake City police but with the suburban Granite School District Police Department — the only one of its kind in Utah. The force, first formed to secure schools at night, has expanded greatly over 35 years as its responsibilities to keep schools safe and secure have grown.

Granite has no schools in Salt Lake City, where the shooting and chase occurred. But its officers and city police had conducted a joint stakeout there — which led to the chase — seeking suspects in burglaries of schools and other locations.

"Because a crime happens concerning school property, it doesn't mean the perpetrator is going to stay on Granite School District property," says Granite Police Chief Jerry Nielsen.

The shooting, which remains under investigation, illustrates some advantages — and risks — of a school district operating its own police department. A police force allows extra attention to school safety and security, and officials say that has even prevented Columbine-like school shootings. They say the department saves more in prevented vandalism and theft than it costs.

But others say potential lawsuits arising from shootings or other heavy-duty law-enforcement work could erase those savings. District police have been involved in several high-profile shootings, car chases and traffic stops outside their normal jurisdiction in recent years.

Critics also question spending scarce education money on law-enforcement duties that they say other surrounding city and county police could handle. Caught in that same dilemma, Jordan School District recently disbanded its police department amid tight budgets.

Skeptics include state Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, a special-education teacher in Granite, who is considering a bill to prohibit spending education money on law enforcement.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard also says other departments could and probably should handle school crime and safety.

Security evolution

Chief Nielsen was the school department's first police officer and has seen it grow from a one-man, nighttime security division into a full-fledged police department with 16 state-certified officers and another 15 employees from dispatchers to alarm specialists. It now provides service 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nielsen actually started at Granite in its paint and glass shop that employed "five full-time glaziers and several part-time glaziers" to repair windows broken by vandals, usually at night. "So I got a firsthand look at the damages and losses we were incurring in the district."

He said police agencies requested the district name someone as a central contact for when vandalism or break-ins occurred. Nielsen, who was a reserve Salt Lake County deputy sheriff, became that contact. "It kept me running day and night," he said.

When the district started centrally tracking vandalism and theft losses, the "astronomical" numbers helped persuade it to start its own security division in 1970. Nielsen was its sole officer for three years patrolling buildings, and the resulting decrease in vandalism and theft led to the hiring of more officers.

In 1985, the Legislature passed a law enabling school districts to form full-fledged police departments, which Granite did. The law gave Granite's state-certified officers statewide law-enforcement powers. But Nielsen said the department's focus was still on securing school property at night and on weekends.

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