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National View: School districts that 'defunded the police' are already regretting it

From the column: "Does this suggest that defunding school police was a crazy idea? ... Well, sort of. But sort of not."

Nicholas Goldberg.jpg
Nicholas Goldberg

The idea of "abolishing" or "defunding" the police has always struck me as risky, to say the least, and not very well thought through. It has the potential to cause at least as many problems as it solves. So when some school districts actually decided to give it a try, I worried they might come to regret it sooner rather than later.

Which is exactly what happened in Pomona, California.

To recap: In July, after a long campaign by community activists, the Pomona Unified School District ended its contract with the Pomona Police Department, saying it would do away with on-campus police patrols and rely instead on "proctors" trained to de-escalate tense situations.

Guess what? Four months later, after a shooting near Pomona High School left a 12-year-old injured from glass and debris, the School Board reversed course and voted to renew the contract. Last month, the Pomona City Council ratified that decision.

And Pomona is not alone. Fremont, in northern California, also reversed its decision to defund school police. Several other cities among the dozens that eliminated their school police have also considered reinstating them.

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So does this suggest that defunding school police was a crazy idea from the start and we can soon go back to the way things were?

Well, sort of. But sort of not.

On the one hand, of course we need police — in schools as elsewhere. Eliminating them, especially without significant study and clear alternative plans, is reckless. There are, after all, millions of incidents of drug use, theft, fights, gang activity, sexual assault, and weapons possessions each year in public schools around the country. Not to mention the infrequent but horrifying school shootings that plague the country. Police are not the root of the problem, and they need to be part of the solution.

But we shouldn't revert to business as usual.

No reasonable person should want to see one more cop than necessary in a school. Police presence sends a message to students that they are suspected criminals who need to be surveilled, controlled, and disciplined.

Furthermore, by many accounts, school police have a tendency to criminalize nonviolent, run-of-the mill misbehavior.

"When I taught in Watts, I saw cops who were great when there was a gun threat," said Nick Melvoin, a member of the L.A. Unified school board. "But I also saw cops ticketing kids who were late to class or responding when they talked back to teachers. These are things that shouldn't be handled by armed police officers."

There have been repeated allegations of excessive force by school police. In August, for instance, a deputy at Lancaster High School in California was seen on video slamming a student to the ground. In September, a Long Beach, California, school safety officer shot and killed an 18-year-old after a fight near school.

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What's more, repeated studies around the country have shown disparate treatment of students of color by school police, including disproportionate arrests for Black and Latino kids.

So reform is in order.

In Los Angeles, the school district, which serves more than 600,000 students, tried to find the middle ground. The School Board didn't eliminate the police, but it did vote in June 2020 to reduce funding for the Los Angeles School Police Department by one-third, or about $25 million. That meant cutting about 133 positions, including about 70 sworn officers. The board said it would divert the money to improving schools with large concentrations of Black students.

That sounded good in theory, but it was worrisome, too — because the board acted precipitously under pressure from students and activists in the wake of George Floyd's killing, without waiting for recommendations from a task force on the issue already convened by the superintendent.

Why not wait for the experts to report back? Was the problem really the number of cops? Or something else? Why cut 70 officers rather than 10 or 200? After the cuts, the task force took such questions off the table and focused instead on how to move forward.

Now, what's done is done. It's too soon to judge the effect because school has been mostly virtual, but with full in-person school back as of August, some principals are already saying they want their police restored.

The district, to its credit, is trying to encourage less dependency on police. Continued training in conflict de-escalation is important, as is training on systemic racism and implicit bias.

Serious incidents in schools will continue to require a law enforcement response. But let's hope districts monitor any cutbacks so more police officers can be authorized where necessary and other, more appropriate solutions can be found where they are not.

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Nicholas Goldberg is an associate editor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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