The Hancock College board of trustees voted Jan. 16 to retain the campus police department, ending more than a year of uncertainty surrounding the future of its campus police force.

"As we've looked at this and have discussed [the proposal] with various trustees over the past couple of months, the board feels like the best thing to do is to keep the police department," Hancock College Superintendent Kevin Walthers said before the vote.

The unanimous decision, postponed from December's board meeting, directs college administrators to maintain a presence of sworn officers and non-sworn public safety officers, supplemented by $200,000 in additional funding to address several long-standing issues. College administrators will now be tasked with finding a permanent chief to guide the beleaguered police department.

"If we have a leader who can advocate for the needs of the department in the name of public safety, and they become integrated into college leadership, then I believe we're going to have a strong, healthy police department," Area 1 Trustee Hilda Zacarias said.

The issue, contentious at times, was transformed into a 16-month public referendum on spending and security needs for the college. Speaking before the vote, supporters and opponents of the proposal testified to the importance — or lack thereof — of maintaining a campus police department. 

"While I understand people are fearful of mass shootings and violence in general, I looked at the [crime] statistics provided and noticed that violent crime rates have reduced," longtime student Donna Olivera said. Leaning toward the creation of a non-sworn and unarmed campus safety department, Olivera argued that an armed security force should not be present at a learning institution.

"Let's be mindful that we're a community college," she added."What kind of message does it send to our students when we have a visible police presence on campus. Does it create a welcoming environment for our community?"

While property and other nonviolent crimes comprised the majority of incidents campus police responded to over the past four years, students, faculty and staff spoke in support of keeping the department, touting their effectiveness on responding to and preventing crime. 

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Janet-Cruz Reyes speaks about the need for the campus police department during discussions by the Hancock College board of trustees Jan. 16.

"There are small incidents that happen on campus that do not [spread] because they were controlled by our police department," said Janet Cruz-Reyes, president of the school's Associated Student Body Government. "That's something we need to give them credit for."

Ron Schram, a veteran law enforcement officer who led the campus police department for the last five months, spoke to trustees Jan. 16 to answer any final questions before the vote. During his tenure as chief, Schram completed a 14-page assessment of campus police — issued to trustees in December but made public last week — that identified inconsistent leadership as a major cause of the department's issues. 

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Former Chief Ron Schram answers questions during discussions by the Hancock College board of trustees Jan. 16 to retain the campus police department.

"The chief is the essential component of the police department," Schram said Jan. 16. "Without that, the department is going to continue to falter. Without strong leadership and continuity of demand, [the department] can't grow."

The decision to maintain and support the department comes with $200,000 (or more) to be put toward salary increases, equipment upgrades and other improvements. Base pay for a Hancock College police officer is among the bottom four compared to other Central Coast police departments, a point Schram and Walthers said would need to be addressed before hiring a new chief.

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A Hancock College police vehicle is parked outside the Administration building during discussions by the Hancock College board of trustees Jan. 16 to retain the campus police department.

"This has been a historical issue for Hancock College since its inception," Schram said. "Law enforcement and public safety have been an afterthought to some degree. It isn't through any mean-spirited or evil design — it's just the way [it] happened."

Despite the cost, Zacarias said the board (and college administrators) will support the next iteration of Hancock College's police department.

"I realize that there may be some additional cost, but we haven't been expending the dollars to-date," she said. "What I'm hoping the outcome will be is a decision that says, as unanimously as possible, '[Hancock College] Police Department, you are important and we are going to work with you to make sure you have the resources to [promote campus] safety.'"

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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