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.

He says that began to change in the early 1990s because of increased crime and gang-related activity in schools. "The safety of our students, schools, teachers and parents became our priority."

The department ballooned from seven to 17 officers, with most working during school hours to handle crime and other situations. Nielsen said that occurred because "of demands by teachers and administrators."

"They wanted to go back to being teachers and school administrators. They were tired of being policemen."

The cost

The cost of the extra security at schools is not cheap for Granite. For 2005, the police department's budget is $1.42 million — about 3 percent of the school district's total budget. It comes from the general fund, where it competes against educational programs for money.

In addition, Granite pays the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office $40,320 and West Valley City another $20,744 for "resource officers" they place in high school and junior highs in their jurisdictions, and for law-enforcement classes those officers teach.

In comparison, Jordan School District had been spending about $800,000 a year on its recently disbanded police department, according to Jordan administrator Burke Jolley.

"We're saving about $600,000 of the $800,000 a year by eliminating the police department," Jolley said. "The other $200,000 a year we continue to spend for monitoring of our alarm system by an independent contractor" and related responses and work.

Granite and Jordan districts are comparable in size, so why is Granite costing 75 percent more a year than Jordan did?

"We provide different services," said Nielsen, who questioned whether Jordan saved as much as reported. "First of all, Jordan didn't have a daytime program."

He says Granite officers also install, maintain and monitor burglar alarms and mechanical and heating systems and handle any needed response. They make minor repairs to broken locks or sealing broken windows, rather than incur the cost of a maintenance worker on overtime.

He says his officers are also able to free up assistant principals and others by handling children with discipline problems whose actions are not necessarily criminal. They can call parents and transport them.

"I think if you compare the number of assistant principals in our secondary schools to Jordan, I think you will see a big difference," Nielsen said.

Workload

In 2004 (through Dec. 19), Granite police responded to 8,187 calls and made 1,533 arrests. In 2003, they responded to 8,490 calls and made 1,776 arrests.

Among the 2004 cases were assaults (including 52 cases of sexual assault), bomb threats (including four with actual explosive devices), gang-related crimes, missing children, weapons, burglaries, vandalism and theft.

They responded to 2,223 calls to investigate suspicious circumstances and 2,990 alarm calls.

Nielsen argues that city and county police are busy with other business and probably could not give schools the attention his department can.

"That's absolutely false," Kennard said.

He said other police are handling crime in the neighborhoods surrounding schools. And Kennard — who has been pushing to create a Unified Police Authority with city police departments — said handling all crime in an area by one department would increase cooperation and efficiency and possibly save money.

But one who sees extra value in Granite's police department is Shelly Pierce, an assistant principal at Jefferson Junior High in Kearns who has also been an administrator at numerous other schools.

"The main advantage is their whole focal point is the schools," she said. "They are quick when we call. They deal almost solely with juveniles, and that is a whole different ball game. . . . If I hear rumors about a fight or trouble, I can ask for extra patrols — and get them quickly."

She remembers an incident at a school where she previously worked. Columbine and a string of other high-profile school shootings were constantly in the national news at the time. She had asked for extra police presence to put students and parents more at ease, but the extra police may have helped stop a shooting at her school, too.

"They noticed two suspicious kids (from another school) hanging out across from the school," she said. Upon investigation, Granite police found the kids had been driving a stolen car hidden nearby. They found the pair were probably aiming to shoot some targeted youths in a rival gang.

"I would have had either dead or injured kids without them, so that was huge," she said. What she appreciated more was that police handled it without notice of most of the school, except for notifying school officials and parents of targeted youths. "It's the sort of thing that can turn a school upside down if it's not handled well."

Extracurricular activities

While Nielsen says schools are the focus of his department, it has made news for incidents either outside the district or only marginally involving schools — such as the October high-speed chase and shooting in Salt Lake City. Others include:

• A 2001 high-speed chase that injured seven people, including three bystanders in South Salt Lake. A Granite officer chased the car, spotted at a 7-Eleven near Granite High School, after discovering it had a stolen license plate. Both Salt Lake and South Salt Lake have policies banning high-speed pursuits for such crimes. Police found a loaded gun in the car, and one occupant was wanted for forgery.

• A 1999 shooting when two Granite officers and two sheriff's deputies killed a man who reached for a shotgun after a chase ended on I-215 in Murray. The chase began in West Jordan (outside Granite School District) when a Granite officer spotted a car that matched one sought by West Jordan police for an armed robbery.

• A "routine traffic stop" last April by a Granite officer unexpectedly netted a man suspected of carjackings. An off-duty sheriff's deputy noticed the car pulled over and notified the officer that police were looking for the car.

The incidents raised several questions, including why school district police are in high-speed chases and shootings, and why school district police issue tickets for traffic violations.

Nielsen said such incidents are rare. His department has been involved in only two shootings. Statistics also show that issuing traffic citations is also fairly rare, with 39 issued in 2004 and 25 in 2003.

Nielsen said his officers do not go looking for traffic violations, "but if they see something flagrant, they are required by statute to take action. We do try to limit it. Unless it is very flagrant, we encourage them not to get involved," he said.

As to why his officers sometimes get involved in incidents outside the district, Nielsen said, "We have a take-home car policy, and some of them live outside the district." He says they monitor calls, and may respond to assist other agencies.

A risk or value?

Granite district officials say they get their money's worth from their police department, but others are not so sure — and say operating a real police department creates too much financial risk for a school district.

Granite School District Superintendent Stephen F. Ronnenkamp said extra presence by the department has cut vandalism and theft so much through the years that it alone "has almost paid for the police department."

Nielsen estimates his force saves possibly $5 million a year in losses, based on the amount the district was losing before his department was formed. But, he acknowledges, such estimates are difficult to figure and prove. "How do you put a dollar amount on what you prevent?"

Ronnenkamp also says close police work with schools has thwarted several potential shootings, "and as an administrator, that is my worst nightmare." He adds that "certain pockets in Granite" have much higher crime rates than in areas in such districts as Jordan, and school police especially help there.

Granite Board of Education President Sarah Meier said, "I get glowing reports about the police. I do believe we save money with them. When I joined the board eight years ago, graffiti was a problem. They have cut that way back."

Still, Ronnenkamp and Meier say the worth of the police department is reviewed closely every year. "Because of shortage of funds, everything is on the list (of possible cuts) every year," Meier said.

But they both say the department has so far proven its worth and survived. It was cut back, however, by one officer last year to save money.

Jordan School District came to a different conclusion about its police department. The district eliminated its department last year, as tight budgets made it also look at losing teachers aides, and teachers losing pay for training.

"There is no other choice that we have," Jordan board member Lynette Phillips said at the time.

Board President Peggy Jo Kenneth also said at the time, "We are not leaving our schools unprotected or unsafe. We will have the same level of protection from local (law enforcement)."

Rep. Holdaway, a Granite teacher and member of legislative education committees, says three things have led him to investigate the worth of Granite's police department: the elimination by Jordan, the fact that Granite is the only school district in the state with a police department, and the competition for scarce education money.

"Frankly, I don't know where I am with it yet," he says. "I have to question if we need (state) certified police officers, or if we could get by with less trained individuals (such as security guards) who could perform the same tasks for less."

While he says he understands district arguments that it may save money by preventing theft and vandalism, "a question I have is the liability we open up for school districts when we have a police force" — especially after a couple of shootings and some high-speed chases.

Kennard agrees. "Why would Granite want to take on that liability instead of police departments? It just takes one bad shooting for all the costs you think you have saved to go out the window" because of lawsuits, he said.

Holdaway said he plans to investigate further but may push a bill to ban spending education money for law enforcement.

Nielsen said he welcomes such scrutiny, and is used to it. "We've had to justify ourselves every year" in budget fights, he says.

"But we're still here. We've been here longer than the sheriff has," he said. And, Nielsen says, he is also now the longest-serving police chief in Salt Lake County. "I expect us to be here a lot longer," he said.


E-mail: lee@desnews.com