(Photo by Dean Curtis)

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When fully staffed, the number of police officers working at Springfield Public Schools sits at 26. That’s more law enforcement than many cities and counties have throughout the state of Missouri, SPS Deputy Superintendent John Mulford said Wednesday.

And now, the school officers are about to become their own police force.

Currently, like most districts across the state, the SPS police are commissioned through a local law enforcement department. In the case of SPS, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office is the agency whose commission currently allows SPS officers to operate as law enforcers, even though the officers are hired and trained by the district.

“To kind of relate that to a school setting, it would be kind of like a school here in town completely disconnected to Springfield Public Schools that does their own thing, but they fall under our accreditation umbrella,” Mulford said.

It’s a relationship that Sheriff Jim Arnott has sought to conclude, and it’s a step that SPS district police chief Jim Farrell is ready to take, Mulford told the SPS school board during Tuesday night’s meeting.

“(Arnott) holds liability for our officers without any control over them, which is not a good model for any entity,” Mulford told the board.

On Tuesday night, the school board voted 6-0 to push the process forward, allowing SPS police to seek memorandums of understanding with three local law enforcement offices — the Greene County Sheriff’s Office, the Springfield Police Department and Battlefield Police Department — to form its own department. While SPS is only commissioned from the sheriff’s office, the district’s footprint covers the two police departments’ jurisdictions as well.

Mulford said that it's the size of SPS, with about 23,500 students enrolled across the state's largest school district, that makes the decision to form its own police department the right one. Only three other districts — Willard, Blue Springs and Dunkin — have their own police departments.

“Missouri has over 520 school districts,” Mulford said in an interview Wednesday. “The average district size is a thousand students. When you look at the majority of districts across the state, they might have one or two school resource officers. So it just wouldn't make sense to have their own commission. Typically, they just partner with a local law enforcement entity and they do school resource officers that way. Some school districts, especially the small, rural ones, are even taking other approaches where they're not even using commissioned officers necessarily. There are a lot of options out there, but it really goes back to the size. Springfield is the largest in the state.”

Mulford said on Wednesday that two of the three agencies needed to sign MOUs have done so already and that the third MOU should be signed shortly. Once it is, SPS will work with the Missouri Peace Officer Standards and Training Program to secure a commission for the department.

Board member Charles Taylor asked Mulford on Tuesday how the switch would affect the district’s liability exposure.

“The only difference is it takes the sheriff’s liability off,” Mulford said. “Because of that, there could be a slight bump in our liability premiums, but it should be minimal.”

As for how the change will be reflected in policing the schools, Mulford said it would hardly be noticeable.

“We'll continue to hire our own officers,” he said. “We'll continue to train our own officers. They'll continue to operate the way they've always operated. The only thing that'll be different is that they won't have to rely on the Greene County Sheriff's Office for their commission.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson