The longtime leader of the West Palm Beach Police Department hopes to address morale and understaffing on the schools police force.
Palm Beach Post | By Giuseppe Sabella | May 5, 2022
PALM SPRINGS — Standing in the school board chambers Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Mooney raised her right hand and recited the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, securing her position as the latest police chief for Palm Beach County public schools.
“Shiny and new,” she said, looking down as Bob Mooney pinned a badge to his wife’s uniform.
In her first moments as chief, Mooney reflected on the achievements leading to her swearing-in ceremony, along with her plans for the embattled police department.
Mooney said she developed a spirit of competition and dedication while swimming throughout college, and that helping others became a focus after earning her master’s degree in social work.
She carried those lessons to the West Palm Beach Police Department, where she climbed from police officer to police chief over more than two decades.
And on Wednesday, shortly after County Judge Ted Booras administered the oath, Mooney vowed to lean on those experiences and push for better conditions at the school police department.
“For my entire life, I’ve lived here,” she said. “The importance of keeping this community safe is a very big responsibility. I don’t take it lightly.”
‘I’m fair and I will listen’: Mooney addresses turmoil in school police department
In the months leading to Mooney’s arrival, an unknown number of officers wrote an anonymous letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, highlighting dozens of vacancies in the school police department and pushing for a takeover by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, a possible solution to their agency’s staffing woes.
Another person, who identified themselves only as a retired officer, wrote a letter to the school board, outlining concerns about department leadership, resources and morale. Officers, the letter said, are afraid of the “fierce retribution” that might follow if someone were to complain.
In an interview after Wednesday’s ceremony, Mooney said officers could share their concerns under her leadership.
“I’m fair and I will listen to anybody if you have something you want to get off your chest or an idea you think might be good,” the chief said. “But I want you to bring a solution to whatever you think the issue is, too. It’s not a one-man band. This is a collaborative type of job, and you have to respect the people that work here.”
“I think one of the worst things you can do is not listen to them and not let them have their piece,” she continued. “As far as retaliation goes, that’s not me, and it shouldn’t be. If you have ideas to improve your work environment, you should be able to bring them forward.”
Mooney is fourth Palm Beach County schools police chief in year
One of the most common concerns is understaffing. The school district has reassured families and employees that every school is staffed with an officer, meeting the requirements of a law passed after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland.
But the district relies on officers from half a dozen other police departments to supplement its own force, helping the district to stay in compliance as it struggles with recruitment, Superintendent Mike Burke said earlier this year.
“We have enough officers within Palm Beach County, our own force, to cover the schools,” Burke said. “But we don’t like getting this thin. We want to be prepared if we have a resignation or retirement.”
The sheriff’s office is also making 20 deputies and two sergeants available to local schools after reaching an agreement with the district in March.
And Mooney – who followed former chiefs Patrick McCutcheon, Daniel Alexander and Frank Kitzerow – is the police department’s fourth leader in about a year.
“You’ve got to have the right people for the positions, especially in the school environment,” Mooney said. “It’s very different than working out in a city or in the suburbs. You’re looking for very particular people.”
Mooney said her ultimate goal was to improve morale and increase resources, making the department a place where people stay and pursue careers.
And the first task, she said, was learning what works and what needs improvement in the department.
“We’ve got a lot of highly skilled and experienced people that work here,” Mooney added. “If you can just make the environment to where they can go out and do what they know how to do, that would go a long way.”