BY JOSEPH P. RILEY JR.
The brutal massacre of school children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., broke our hearts. And it did something else. It shattered our sense of the automatic serenity and safety of our children happily learning in their early school years.
Immediately after the Newtown killings, I asked our chief of police, Gregory Mullen, to study what happened and what has been happening in America and to advise me if, in light of this, there are any actions the city should take to make our schools safer. Chief Mullen thoroughly researched and analyzed this issue, provided options to consider and made a recommendation, which I have now strongly recommended to our City Council.
The city would create a new cadre of nineteen Charleston City police officers with only one responsibility, and that is to attend to the safety of the schools in our city. They would be assigned to eight specific school clusters — two clusters in the Peninsula, three in West Ashley, one on James Island, one on Johns Island and one on Daniel Island. These police officers would be on duty when the school is opened and off duty when the school is closed. They would have no other duties. They would not be pulled away to traffic stops, accidents, robberies or other disturbances. Every minute of their working day, they would be focused on the security of our schools, the children and teachers.
Each member of the team would be constantly visiting the schools, meeting with the principal and staff, examining the school security, making sure the gates and doors that are supposed to be locked are securely locked, studying how well the school security protocol is being followed, checking the school perimeter, adjacent area, walking the school property and more. Should there be a security threat or an event at a school, all members of the cluster would immediately respond. There is a great likelihood that one of the officers would be at the school in question or nearby. The police officers would be heavily armed and trained to take out anyone harming or threatening to harm children. Their training and the protocol of this system is a counter-terrorist approach.
Clearly, the killer in the Connecticut shooting was a terrorist — a domestic one but a terrorist nonetheless. His goal wasn’t to rob or settle disagreements with a particular individual; it was to cause deathly violence, and he was willing to die in the process. Our officers would be trained to deal with exactly this kind of person.
We are working closely with our school district and its security team as well to consider physical and operational changes that can make schools safer. Some suggestions include ballistic or impact-resistant glass to be put in all doors so that if someone tried to shoot in a locked door, they would not be able to sufficiently break through glass and gain entry. Also, we believe strongly that a much stricter protocol should be developed for people coming to the school without an appointment and more.
I believe that with these additional highly trained and focused officers, and with the school district strengthening systems, protocols and physical aspects of the schools, we can, together, make our schools substantially safer.
Within the cluster, any private schools in the community with elementary programs are included. We see children in public schools and private schools as equal citizens of Charleston and accept the responsibility to all of them to make their times in school as safe as possible, happy and secure ones.
Additionally, I have recommended eight additional police officers to assist in the nightly activity of the burgeoning Market, King and Upper King areas.
We must always make sure that every area of our city is safe and orderly. Currently, we have to pull officers from our team areas away from their normal duties to attend to this responsibility. It is important that the team officers be able to attend to their regular responsibilities, and these additional officers will allow that to happen. With our understanding of the additional responsibilities of school safety, it is important that all of our teams are at full strength. Because if an event happened outside of school, not only would the cluster of police officers respond immediately, but the team resources would be available to respond as well. They need to be at full force.
Concurrent with this, our fire department just presented its Strategic Plan, which shows the immediate need for two new fire stations, manpower and equipment in fast-growing areas of our city — the Daniel Island/Cainhoy area and the western part of West Ashley.
The economy, thankfully, has turned around substantially, and a tremendous amount of construction is under way. That produces jobs, which we welcome, and also provides the construction of new buildings and residences that need to be protected.
This will require a property tax increase of 4 mils. That means that if a home has an assessed value of $250,000, it would be a $40 a year tax increase or $3.33 a month. This is the first tax increase I have presented since November 2007, and before that, the last tax increase was 1998.
Even with this increase, Charleston will have a lower property tax rate than the other large center cities in South Carolina — lower than Columbia, Greenville and North Charleston. With these new funds, our police and fire departments will be fully staffed, and there is no need for future tax increases in the foreseeable future.
With the turnaround in the economy and the growth of the city’s tax base, including local options sales tax revenue, it may be that over the next several years, the effective tax rate will actually be reduced.
City government has many priorities. Clearly the first is to make our citizens safe, and among our citizens, especially our children.
These investments in public safety are needed now and will help make our precious children safer.
Joseph P. Riley Jr. is mayor of Charleston.