by David Safier
In February 2014, officers responded to a group of African-American teenage girls “play fighting” (in the words of the officer) in an intersection after school. When one of the schoolgirls gave the middle finger to a white witness who had called the police, an officer ordered her over to him. One of the girl’s friends accompanied her. Though the friend had the right to be present and observe the situation—indeed, the offense reports include no facts suggesting a safety concern posed by her presence—the officers ordered her to leave and then attempted to arrest her when she refused. Officers used force to arrest the friend as she pulled away. When the first girl grabbed an officer’s shoulder, they used force to arrest her, as well.The second passage:
Officers charged the two teenagers with a variety of offenses, including: Disorderly Conduct for giving the middle finger and using obscenities; Manner of Walking for being in the street; Failure to Comply for staying to observe; Interference with Officer; Assault on a Law Enforcement Officer; and Endangering the Welfare of a Child (themselves and their schoolmates) by resisting arrest and being involved in disorderly conduct. This incident underscores how officers’ unlawful response to activity protected by the First Amendment can quickly escalate to physical resistance, resulting in additional force, additional charges, and increasing the risk of injury to officers and members of the public alike.
FPD’s approach to policing impacts how its officers interact with students, as well, leading them to treat routine discipline issues as criminal matters and to use force when communication and de-escalation techniques would likely resolve the conflict.
FPD stations two School Resource Officers in the Ferguson-Florissant School District,19 one at Ferguson Middle School and one at McCluer South-Berkeley High School. The stated mission of the SRO program, according to the memorandum of understanding between FPD and the school district, is to provide a safe and secure learning environment for students. But that agreement does not clearly define the SROs’ role or limit SRO involvement in cases of routine discipline or classroom management. Nor has FPD established such guidance for its SROs or provided officers with adequate training on engaging with youth in an educational setting. The result of these failures, combined with FPD’s culture of unreasonable enforcement actions more generally, is police action that is unreasonable for a school environment.
For example, in November 2013, an SRO charged a ninth grade girl with several violations after she refused to follow his orders to walk to the principal’s office. The student and a classmate, both 15-year-old African-American girls, had gotten into a fight during class. When the officer responded, school staff had the two girls separated in a hallway. One refused the officer’s order to walk to the principal’s office, instead trying to push past staff toward the other girl. The officer pushed her backward toward a row of lockers and then announced that she was under arrest for Failure to Comply. Although the officer agreed not to handcuff her when she agreed to walk to the principals’ office, he forwarded charges of Failure to Comply, Resisting Arrest, and Peace Disturbance to the county family court. The other student was charged with Peace Disturbance.
FPD officers respond to misbehavior common among students with arrest and force, rather than reserving arrest for cases involving safety threats. As one SRO told us, the arrests he made during the 2013-14 school year overwhelmingly involved minor offenses—Disorderly Conduct, Peace Disturbance, and Failure to Comply with instructions. In one case, an SRO decided to arrest a 14-year-old African-American student at the Ferguson Middle School for Failure to Comply when the student refused to leave the classroom after getting into a trivial argument with another student. The situation escalated, resulting in the student being drive-stunned with an ECW [Electronic Control Weapon: Taser] in the classroom and the school seeking a 180-day suspension for the student. SROs’ propensity for arresting students demonstrates a lack of understanding of the negative consequences associated with such arrests. In fact, SROs told us that they viewed increased arrests in the schools as a positive result of their work. This perspective suggests a failure of training (including training in mental health, counseling, and the development of the teenage brain); a lack of priority given to de-escalation and conflict resolution; and insufficient appreciation for the negative educational and long-term outcomes that can result from treating disciplinary concerns as crimes and using force on students.