When police reform hasn’t worked: Part I

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

The recent history of police reform in America is not encouraging.

Some reform measures aimed at reducing police violence in vogue today are direct retreads of reforms proposed in the past that failed to forestall police killings of black Americans that continue today. For example, the New York City police department banned the use of chokeholds by police officers in 1993. Yet, in 2014, New Yorker Eric Garner was killed after a police officer put him in a chokehold, cutting off his breath. Six years later, the New York State Assembly passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act, which bans chokeholds by police officers.

Related: World responds to protests sparked by George Floyd’s death

For the next two editions, Critical State looks at the recent research about whether and why efforts at police reform in the United States have failed in the past.

One area of policing that draws special attention from anti-violence advocates is the stationing of police in schools, especially in schools where the students are majority black. A whole range of research shows that putting students in close contact with police generates negative outcomes for students, from making it more likely that school administrators will file criminal complaints about low-level student offenses to increasing numbers of suspensions and expulsions, which deprive students of class time. Despite that research, school districts continue expanding programs that bring the police to schools, which are known as School Resource Officer (SRO) programs.

Education policy scholars Erica Turner and Abigail Beneke wanted to find out why.

Related: Do armed police officers in schools make kids safer?

To figure it out, Turner and Beneke conducted a case study of activism and policymaking decisions around SROs in a single midwestern city between 2015 and 2018, a timeframe that captured both the emerging academic consensus about the negative effects of SROs and the rise of the Movement for Black Lives in the US. The school district had long implemented SRO programs, but after community groups began exerting pressure on the school district to end the programs, the school board appointed a committee to examine how to reform, or possibly abolish, SRO programs in local schools.

Going through the testimony provided to the committee, Turner and Beneke found that different people saw SROs radically differently. One view, common among the young black and Southeast Asian activists who organized against the SRO programs, saw the officers as an ever-present threat to students of color. These students and former students told the committee about frequent harassment from SROs for things like speaking their native language or dressing “suspiciously.” In their framework, which Turner and Beneke called the “race radical view,” SROs formed the frontline of a school-to-prison pipeline, criminalizing normal behavior by students of color in ways that make them less likely to be able to remain in school and much more likely to be incarcerated. Yet, their concerns fell on deaf ears.

Related: Toronto’s first black police chief resigns

Many of the non-students who spoke to the committee saw the SROs in the opposite light — as “mentors and counselors to troubled students,” Turner and Beneke wrote. In this view, the SROs played a vital role in providing services to students who were managing trauma and for whom the school did not have adequate resources to offer counseling and other services. Turner and Beneke called this view the “neoliberal therapeutic view” because it emphasized the efficiency of outsourcing necessary emotional labor onto police officers, many of whom are black themselves and are among the few black adults students see on a daily basis in school. The SROs, this view argued, functioned as black role models and mentors to students who the school was otherwise unprepared to provide with role models and mentors.

Related: Tear gas has been banned in warfare. Why do police still use it? 

In the end, the committee recommended few of the changes to SRO programs demanded by activists. Officers would still be in schools, wearing uniforms and wielding guns and the power to arrest students. SROs would be somewhat more accountable to school district leaders — but not to students or the community at large. Moreover, the committee went even further in the neoliberal therapeutic direction, giving SROs an even greater role in teaching and discipline to further access their perceived utility as mentors. The power of the neoliberal therapeutic narrative was so strong that there was no real discussion of whether that mentoring role could be filled any other way.

In the 2018-2019 school year, the district paid $350,000 to employ four SROs.

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