By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — Years without a dedicated police presence inside the city’s schools could be coming to an end soon as the Amesbury Police Department recently received word it has been awarded $250,000 in federal grant money to hire and train a school resource officer.
But actually accepting the grant could prove difficult as the city is required to match 25 percent of the funds, possibly fueling a fight between City Hall and city councilors who believe the city is already spending too much.
Amesbury was one of only three Bay State communities, along with Tewksbury and Chelsea, out of more than 50 to receive the grant from the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) hiring program. Since 1995, COPS has awarded more than $14 billion to more than 13,000 state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to fund the hiring and redeployment of approximately 125,000 officers and provide a variety of knowledge and resource products including publications, training and technical assistance.
“This is great news,” Amesbury police Chief Kevin Ouellet said. “This strengthens our partnership with the schools and it allows us to better protect and serve the school community.”
U.S. Rep. John Tierney said in a statement that in light of recent school tragedies, most notably the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, being as proactive as possible is essential.
“School resource officers and the COPS program are important tools to achieve this goal, and I am pleased that Tewksbury and Amesbury have been awarded these federal funds. Students, teachers and faculty thrive best in schools that are safe and secure,” Tierney said, referring to the two communities in his district.
Amesbury police has been without a school resource officer since 2005 when current Sgt. Richard Poulin was assigned to both the high school and middle school. The lack of an officer inside those two schools has been felt by the department, which had been able to get ahead of many dangerous situations.
“We hope to turn that around to be more proactive and less reactive,” Ouellet said.
In addition to the school resource officer’s crime prevention role inside the schools, the officer also serves as a vital communication link between the police department and school officials. Add the educational component where an officer talks directly to students about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, Ouellet and others are convinced that having a school resource officer is vital.
Amesbury police Sgt. Kevin Donovan said that from last September until May, the police department received 15,353 calls for service. Of those calls, 2,174 — about 16 percent — came from the city’s schools. That puts an enormous strain on police resources and affects the department’s ability to conduct routine patrols and respond to non-school related incidents.
“There’s a huge draw on resources for us and the school department. We needed to fill this gap,” Donovan said.
Yet Donovan and Ouellet acknowledged that securing the necessary matching funds from taxpayers could be challenging. To that end, police and school officials are soon expected to hold discussions with Mayor Thatcher Kezer regarding the city’s involvement.
Yesterday, Kezer said he is expecting to file a bill that would seek the City Council’s acceptance of the grant in time for its November meeting. Should the council accept the grant, the city would have to fund approximately $70,000.
According to Donovan, the grant must be accepted by the city within 90 days of its being awarded.
Asked how he thought the council might feel about such a substantial expenditure at a time when many taxpayers are decrying his administration and the council for spending too much, Kezer said the council has long been calling for the reinstatement of a school resource officer.
Still, Kezer said he would be sitting down with chief financial officer Michael Basque, police and school officials soon to discuss the best strategy for introducing the bill.
“These are the kind of issues that pop up mid-year,” Kezer said.