After a 21-year-old man brought a rifle into Aztec High School in December 2017 and killed two students, state Sen. Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho) and other legislators met with Aztec's chief of police and other law enforcement officers to contemplate legislation for school safety.
One idea eventually became SB 148, which allows retired law enforcement officers in New Mexico to be hired by school districts as "school security personnel" without losing a portion of their pension benefits through the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which manages pensions for retired cops and other public employees.
If those retired officers work for districts for five years, they could also begin to draw a pension from the state's Educational Retirement Board (ERB). Bills in previous years would have allowed retired cops to to return to a salaried policing job—commonly referred to as "double-dipping"—but Brandt says his bill is different.
"Is it double-dipping?" Brandt asks rhetorically in his Senate office. "Well, you're not going back to the same field. In broad terms, you might be" double dipping.
On Wednesday, senators on the education committee spent less than 10 minutes discussing the bill before it was unanimously approved for passage to the chamber's finance committee. Sitting with Brandt to advocate for the bill was Mike Baker, chief operations officer for Rio Rancho Public Schools and a retired State Police officer.
"The benefit [is] to hire retired law enforcement and corrections officers that have a background in safety and security," Baker told legislators.
Baker said he had difficulty recruiting retired cops to work security in schools because of a provision in the law that says a retired public employees' cost-of-living pension adjustment, or COLA, is suspended if that employee goes back to work for a public employer, such as a school district. Under the bill, any former law enforcement officer who works for a district would not have their COLA suspended.
The idea comes after the PERA board endorsed in December a proposal to suspend COLA for all retirees from 2019 to 2022, and for all state employees except State Police and the Corrections Department to put more of their paychecks into the PERA system. Both would have to be passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
At the committee hearing, New Mexico School Superintendents' Association Executive Director Stan Rounds and Gilbert Peralta of the New Mexico School Boards Association supported the bill as a means of boosting security in schools.
The bill includes no provisions about training for retired cops who go to work in schools, nor does it suggest they should be armed. Brandt tells SFR that schools would also not be able to check with a retired officer's former employer about whether they had been disciplined for on-duty conduct, because most police agencies (but not all) consider such records protected from public disclosure.
"Who will protect our kids from active shooter situations?" Brandt opined. "A guy who has no training at all, received a cursory training course on how to be a guard, or guy who is 20-30 year veteran of a police force?"
But a recent study by the Brookings Institution casts doubt on Brandt's assumption that more cops equals more safety.
According to that review, which looked at the effects of a measure in North Carolina to give schools funding for armed "school resource officers" over a seven-year period, increasing investments in school resource officers did not lead to safer schools.
Specifically, when the author compared instances of "disciplinary acts" such as homicides, bomb threats, weapons possession and other serious transgressions, he found no difference between schools that received funds for resource officers and those that didn't. The author also cites other evidence that more officers in schools leads to more student arrests and juvenile court referrals, which disproportionately impact low income and non-white students.
"A concern with increased [school resource officer] use is that poor decision making, on the part of young adolescents, could be criminalized, when, in fact, other types of developmental support is needed," the study concludes.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Brandt holds a belief that more police would create more safety. "Really, this is a response to the school shooting [in Aztec]," he says.
Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque), who chairs the Legislative Education Committee and voted to approve the bill, agreed with Brandt's vision.
"The purpose isn't to bust them for a little pot or hassle them for walking straight," Stewart says. "It's to be truly as a supportive role."
She tells SFR she's wary of any law that allows retirees to draw multiple pensions—despite her vote hours earlier.
"I personally really feel that our retirement systems should be used for retirement, not for making extra money," Stewart says. "So, I have a lot of trouble with the bill that Senator Brandt presented this morning, but I think it will get sorted out in other committees."
At publication time, there was no indication of when the bill would come before the Legislative Finance Committee.