Could LAUSD Disband Its School Police Department?

Los Angeles school police officers watch students lining up to pass through a security checkpoint at Thomas Jefferson High School in 2005. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, activist groups are pushing public school districts nationwide to reconsider whether to station police officers on their campuses.

The Minneapolis and Portland school districts have already voted to end their contracts with their police departments. Activists in Chicago and New York City are pushing their mayors to pull police out of local schools, arguing officers' presence does more harm than good for students.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, "defunding" school police would be a lot more complicated than canceling a contract. For decades, LAUSD has operated its own police department — one of the largest independent school police forces in the nation.

But efforts to dismantle the L.A. School Police Department are picking up steam.


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Last week, the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles endorsed a demand that LAUSD reallocate all funding from its school police department to mental health services and counselors — a preliminary step in a process that could end up mobilizing the union's considerable political and organizing clout against the school police.

In recent years, UTLA has sided with activist and student groups who opposed the L.A. School Police on certain policy questions — for instance, the district's policy on random student searches or school police use of pepper spray.

But the teachers union has explicitly stopped short of calls to dismantle the department — until, maybe, now.

"This movement in the streets ... has made people rethink not just schools, but cities, in terms of the way policing functions," UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said on Monday. "It's really this movement, this moment, this reckoning that's helped move toward this position."

Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter-LA speaks at a rally of labor unions at City Hall on June 8, 2020. (Kyle Stokes/LAist)

ARE POLICE UNIONS PART OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT?

The president of L.A.'s school police union, Gil Gamez, saw the UTLA leadership vote as a betrayal.

"We have a union president telling another union president that we want to disband your union," said Gamez. "We're part of the same district. In the union world, that's like, 'What are you doing? We're supposed to be brothers and sisters.'"

But at a Monday rally on the steps of L.A. City Hall, UTLA leaders joined several local labor unions to call on governments to "divest" funding from law enforcement agencies and use the money to fund other social services, including education.

At that rally, Black Lives Matter-L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah also called on some of those same unions — and the L.A. County Federation of Labor — to "oust police associations from the labor movement."

"The interests of police associations that parade and disguise themselves as unions," Abdullah said, "are in direct opposition to every other working person in this country."

'WHAT WE REALLY NEED IS SUPPORT'

The UTLA leadership vote is only the beginning.

A representative body of 250 UTLA members still needs to vote on whether to adopt their leaders' proposal as the union's official position. That vote could happen by the end of June.

By then, it's likely the L.A. Unified School Board will have already approved the school district's budget for the coming year — though other activist groups, including Students Deserve, will also be pushing the board to strip the school police department's $70 million budget.

Instead of police, "what we really need is support," said Sarah Djato, a Dorsey High School rising senior and a leader in Students Deserve. "We need [psychiatric social workers]. We need college counselors. We need places for creative expression. We need transformative and restorative justice."

ARE THE VOTES THERE?

Last summer, both the activism by Students Deserve and UTLA's support were instrumental in swaying four of the LAUSD board's seven members to vote the phasing out of the district's policy of randomly searching middle- and high school students for weapons and drugs. (L.A. School Police don't conduct the searches, but supported the policy and were often present for the searches.)

It's not clear whether these activists could reassemble the same four votes to immediately end funding for school police. Board members could also take more incremental steps — for instance: disarming school police officers, requiring additional training or making less-drastic reductions in the department's funding.

But before UTLA leaders can lobby the school board, they'll need to ensure their own membership is on board. Caputo-Pearl was careful to note that "dialogue" is ongoing ahead of the broader union vote.

In one UTLA-friendly Facebook group, the union leadership's proposal to defund school police generated passionate back-and-forth — with a decent number of commenters voicing opposition.

"I don't know school principals who don't want to be protected by something like a police officer," said LAUSD board member George McKenna. "Parents that volunteer on the campus — you can even ask them. They don't see police as a problem for them."

George McKenna, a member of the L.A. Unified School Board, speaks during a meeting in August 2017. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

SHOULD POLICE OFFICERS BE STATIONED ON CAMPUSES?

McKenna — a longtime school administrator and the lone African American member of the school board — says he too has "been victimized" by police and agrees with Black Lives Matters' arguments about systemic racism.

But "school police are ... different from the municipal police," McKenna said, arguing that police officers' presence deters on-campus problems.

Gamez even said his is a model department, where police are specially trained to work with children and resolve conflicts well before the use of force becomes necessary.

"We are the department of the future in many aspects," he argued. "The number one job of a police officer is de-escalation ... Our officers are the best at de-escalation, and they don't even know it."

But two different studies of LAUSD police statistics in recent years have also shown that Black students are disproportionately likely to face arrest on-campus.

And some students have told KPCC/LAist that the presence of police on campus makes them feel unsafe in their schools.

"The [Los Angeles School Police Department] has always maintained a high standard of professionalism on our campuses," read a post on the department's Twitter account Tuesday. "We work closely with LAUSD students, teachers, and staff. Our mission is to provide a safe environment in which the educational process can take place."

Who would handle on-campus security if the district's police force were to be disbanded? UTLA leadership's proposal doesn't offer a complete answer to this question.

"You're not going to leave the workers out to dry," Caputo-Pearl said. "We'd want to be very supportive of whatever conversion process there was to make sure that the [school police officers] are able to find very good work to do."

But Caputo-Pearl also noted that many other urban districts don't run their own police forces — and that maybe LAUSD should learn from them.