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S.D. police chiefs advise governor on school safety

Posted: Friday, Jan 18th, 2013

FORT PIERRE — Entry into South Dakota’s school buildings should be restricted to help prevent shootings like last month’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., police chiefs from around the state told Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Wednesday.

Some police chiefs also said changes in laws or procedures may be needed to help them deal with mentally ill people who pose threats because they have guns.

Daugaard said he had intended to talk to the South Dakota Police Chiefs’ Association about a plan to cut prison costs by treating more offenders outside prison walls, but instead decided to ask the more than two dozen police chiefs at the meeting for their thoughts on gun control and school safety. He said he expects those issues to come up in this year’s legislative session in the wake of the Dec. 14 elementary school shooting in Connecticut that left 20 children and six adults dead.

After meeting with the police chiefs, Daugaard said he hasn’t decided what position he will take on gun control and school safety during the legislative session. “I want to think about it some more,” the Republican governor said.

Daugaard has said he supports gun rights, but last year he vetoed a bill approved by legislators that called for allowing most adults to carry concealed handguns without permits. He argued that the measure would have made it difficult for law officers to determine if people were qualified to carry concealed weapons.

A similar bill has been introduced this year. Some lawmakers have also said they will promote a measure allowing teachers and administrators to bring guns to school so they could stop an armed intruder.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama on Wednesday proposed bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, along with a requirement for universal background checks on gun buyers.

The South Dakota police chiefs who met with Daugaard did not comment on the president’s proposal, but several said they believe it’s too easy for people to get into school buildings.

Steve Allender, police chief in Rapid City, said schools are still being built so parents and other visitors get far into the building before checking in, and back doors are not secured.

Aberdeen Chief Don Lanpher Jr. said entry cards could help, but that securing schools will continue to be a difficult task. “We’d have to build a fort to protect them,” he said.

Changes such as strengthening glass in school entryways would make it more difficult for intruders to get into buildings, which would give law officers more time to answer emergency calls and stop someone with a gun, said Brookings Chief Jeff Miller. He said all officers in his department have taken part in emergency response exercises.

“If we’re going to have an incident happen, seconds and minutes count,” Miller said.

He said some police chiefs might be reluctant to take stands on gun control and a ban on assault rifles because they are hunters and believe in the constitutional right to bear arms.

Allender said police find it difficult to deal with mentally ill people who have guns and are a threat to public safety. Rapid City police are tracking a man who is mentally ill and recently bought an assault-style rifle, but the man can legally have the gun because he’s never been adjudicated as mentally ill or convicted of a felony, he said.

Officials could try to get the man committed for mental health treatment, but that’s difficult to accomplish, Allender said.

Miller said police in Brookings and other cities have identified people who are threats.

“We know in our communities who these ticking time bombs are. We can’t ignore them,” Miller said.

Joanna Vitek, police chief in Watertown, said most South Dakota cities are small, which means law officers can help prevent school shootings by forging relationships with students, teachers, parents and others. Those people then will be more willing to call police when they suspect someone is a threat, she said.

“If we see something that looks a little strange, raise the red flag so we can intervene. I think the key here is to do something before it happens,” Vitek said.

For the complete article see the 01-17-2013 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-17-2013 paper.

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