Lunceford issues statement on lack of school resource officers: ‘I wish I could tell you it will get better’

Published 3:43 pm Friday, July 29, 2022

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Sheriff Dexter Lunceford on Friday released a statement regarding the anticipated lack of school resource officers at Carter County school campuses this year.
“When my staff and I sat down to try and find SROs for this school year it became painfully obvious that we could only provide four,” he said in a statement. “So, this forces me to a position where I could not, in good conscience, renew the SRO contract with the school system knowing there is no way I could fulfill that contractual obligation. What I am going to do is provide one for each high school at the Sheriff’s Office expense.
“I wish I could tell you that the decision to cut School Resource Officers for this upcoming school year was the toughest decisions of my eight years in office. Unfortunately, that would not be true, for there to be a decision, there must first be at least two options. The truth is there are no options. If there were, the choice to protect our children would be simple.”
Lunceford, who lost his re-election bid, said despite the challenges caused by lack of staffing, he remains committed to protecting the children of Carter County. “For the remainder of my term I will do everything within my power to protect our schools. I have instructed the patrol shifts to make routine stops at the schools and have asked the Tennessee Highway Patrol to do the same. This is the best we can do with the current staffing levels we have.
“You need to know the sheriff cannot place constables, retired military or retired law enforcement in schools as SROs, it is against state law. SROs must be full-time, P.O.S.T. certified, paid law enforcement officers.”
Lunceford, who served eight years as sheriff, leaves office Aug. 31. He said the SRO shortage is caused by an ongoing lack of funding to hire and retain staff.
“For eight years I have been asking for increases in pay for Sheriff’s Office employees in an effort to hire and retain good people. This had increased in urgency the past two years. Myself and Chief Deputy Parrish have been warning the commission that if pay was not increased to an average of the surrounding departments we were going to find ourselves in dire need of employees,” his statement reads.
“In 2020 my staff spent two weeks preparing numbers for the State of Tennessee to use federal AR monies for a hazardous pay bonus due to COVID, because we worked through it (we can’t close or work from home like the other departments). The state approved what would have been approximately $5000 in hazard pay for each of my employees. The County Commission denied these monies for the employees and bought a cardboard bailer instead.
“We have repeatedly asked for pay raises and were denied. I do realize they have given our employees a few small raises (thank you), with that we are still, at best, 20% below where we need to be. This past month the commission again denied a $4000 bonus for all county employees after two committees had approved it. The commission has ignored my pleas and we simply cannot compete with surrounding departments.
“We have repeatedly told the County Commission that when we got to a critical level in the jail that I would have no choice but to stop inmate work programs and anything else that was not statutorily required, including cutting or reducing School Resource Officers. We are now at that point.”
Lunceford detailed the shortages. “Today I am 51 full-time employees short. The jail has failed the T.C.I. inspection because of this and I look for them to de-certify it on September 9. To help maintain the jail I have no choice but to re-assign P.O.S.T. certified patrol officers (including SROs) to work in the jail. This helps us operationally, but will not help with the T.C.I. inspection, because they are not certified Correction Officers. During the last few months seven SROs have left, leaving us with eight. Patrol officers have worked their way out of the jail to an enforcement position and requiring them to go back to the jail is causing them to leave. My administrative level staff are now routinely assigned to a shift in the jail.”
And he said he does not anticipate any easy solution.
“I wish I could tell you it will get better,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, it won’t until the commission places a priority on hiring and keeping employees by paying a living wage. People that choose law enforcement as a career don’t do it for the money, but they should be able to take care of their families and feel appreciated by all, and they should absolutely make more money than fast food restaurant employees.”

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