By Bob Uphues
If you think you're seeing more Riverside police squad cars idling in grade school parking lots during the day, it's not your imagination. It also doesn't mean that something bad is happening inside the buildings.
Instead, the squad cars are there on purpose — the result of a new police department policy that officers began following on Feb. 11.
According to Police Chief Thomas Weitzel, officers are now instructed to complete non-arrest reports and other routine paperwork in school parking lots. Doing so will increase police presence at schools without officers being there in response to an emergency or to make an arrest.
"I felt it was an effective, efficient way to have an immediate impact," said Weitzel, whose department has received increased calls for police presence near schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook School shooting in December.
In the days immediately following that attack by an armed intruder, for example, District 96 school officials asked for police presence at nighttime events.
"We provided them, but it was a challenge," said Weitzel, whose department typically has just three or four officers on the streets at any given hour of the day.
In response, Weitzel decided to tell officers to head to schools when they had some paperwork to catch up on, instead of pulling over in parking lots on the edge of town or other areas.
"Why not have anyone on the day shift, when possible and in a non-arrest situation, go to the nearest school parking lot," said Weitzel. "It gives us an extra presence and doesn't cost us overtime."
Weitzel said he's also instructed police on the evening shift to do the same things, especially when there are evening events taking place at the schools.
District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson said he's OK with police vehicles parking in school lots during the day, but said he's keeping lines of communication open with parents and teachers to make sure they feel the same way.
"I hope it has the calming effect [Weitzel] is hoping for," said Lamberson. "But I'm keeping in contact with parents and staff to see if it has an effect other than what's intended."
In addition, Weitzel said he contacted the chiefs of police in Brookfield and at the Brookfield Zoo, to let them know the presence of their officers would be welcome around Riverside-Brookfield High School, which is on the border between Riverside and Brookfield.
Brookfield Police Chief Steven Stelter said he hasn't instructed his officers to do so, however, adding that his officers make their presence known at schools on a routine basis.
"It's been our policy for years to patrol the schools if officers are not on a call," said Stelter, who added that his officers also conduct unannounced walkthroughs at schools during the school year.
"We're really proactive, so I don't need to put my guys in the parking lots when they're writing their reports."