As the conversation around defunding the police continues across the nation and in South San Francisco, it is important for people to understand how police divestment empowers our community. Following the recent push to sever ties with the police department in San Francisco Unified School District as well as Oakland Unified School District in the past month, South San Francisco Unified School District (SSFUSD) was met with the same question with regards to their school liaison officers (SLOs). Numerous public comments were submitted by community members and read into the record of the July 16th school board meeting. Although there were some comments in support of keeping SLOs in SSFUSD, there were many in support of the district severing ties with SLOs and/or setting clear parameters with how SLOs interact with students and staff. At the end of the meeting, the board gave time to South San Francisco Chief of Police Jeff Azzopardi to present reasons as to why he thinks SLOs should remain in SSFUSD. While his passion for SLOs was made very apparent, Azzopardi reinforced many myths and inaccuracies about what SLOs do for the South San Francisco school community.
Below are some of the major myths and misinformation that Azzopardi presented or eluded to:
MYTH 1: South San Francisco is safe because of the presence of officers.
Azzopardi expressed that the safety of South San Francisco is the result of the way in which police are currently funded and how they have been policing the community. What was lacking in his statements were any analysis or evidence of how police were making schools and the larger South San Francisco community safer. While there are certainly instances in which officers are needed to respond to violent occurrences, the reality is that these instances are extremely rare. Most of what officers in SSF are responding to are calls about suspicious activities as well as traffic violations–both of which are non-violent. Research has also found that police do not actually spend the majority of their time chasing burglars or arresting murderers. While the exact numbers for SSF are not readily available, it was found that in the city of Sacramento, only 4 percent of their time was spent responding to violent crime with varying success rates. Most of the time, officers are responding to either non-criminal calls and traffic violations. This doesn’t fit the narrative of officers that are often depicted in Hollywood and echoed by elected officials. Furthermore, more spending on officers does not equal less crime. New York spends billions on their police yet it is still far from being considered a safe city. The chief is hyper-magnifying police response to violence or the threat of violence which leads to the belief that it is happening consistently. This is a tactic to induce fear which clouds judgement and prevents us from making an informed decision.
MYTH 2: Officers are needed to prevent school shootings.
The chief spent considerable time talking about how they are called by the school to respond to the threat of a school shooting. What he did not admit is that the success rate in which they are able to prevent the people who are making these kinds of threats are very small. When mass shootings occur, they usually happen without warning. The shooter’s mindset is usually of catching their targets by surprise and to maximize their violence before officers arrive on the scene. When these shootings occur, police only arrive after the shooters have fired massive numbers of rounds. In the case of the Parkland school shooting, the officer was heavily criticized for his inaction despite standard police training. The presence of an armed officer did not deter the shooter from opening fire on his peers. Rarely are officers there to intercept the school shooter at their house as they are loading their vehicle with guns. If SSFPD were doing such things on a regular basis, it would certainly be national news with countless departments flocking to SSF to learn how they are able to intercept and arrest school shooters before it happens.
The deeper question to consider is: what is happening in a person’s school environment and community that would push them to want to commit such unjustifiable violence on an entire school community? Research has shown that the most important thing that schools can do to prevent active shooter incidents—and gun violence overall—is to intervene before a person commits an act of violence. Early intervention is key to addressing potential violent behavior and to providing students with appropriate treatment. There are many research-backed toolkits that SSFUSD can reference to prevent gun violence, all of which call for more investment in access to professionals who can provide mental health services, including school psychologists, school social workers, school nurses, and school counselors. Police on campus, on the other hand, have not been shown to have any impact on preventing mass shootings.
MYTH 3: Officers can do it all, even provide mental health services and youth mentorship.
The chief’s claim that SLOs mentor children and divert students from joining gangs have not been proven with any data or research. He is implying that having officers take on these roles , which they are not trained for, is more effective than having actual organizations and professionals with training and education work with our young people. The chief’s reasoning can be compared to asking a firefighter to give people haircuts. South San Francisco officers are simply not trained to be working with students. Furthermore, students are reluctant to opening up to officers about their problems and struggles, knowing that behind all the teddy bears, stickers, and that police corvette they drive around, as if it’s a universal symbol of safety, they still hold the instruments to fine, incarcerate, or kill them or their family members. How can we guarantee that an officer will not seek to make an arrest or get a home search warrant if a student confides in a SLO about how their older brother sells bootleg t-shirts to pay for rent and food since COVID-19 has left their parents unemployed and who also have medical bills to pay for? Will this SLO be empathetic to this student’s struggle or will this SLO see this as an opportunity to advance his own career in making an arrest? Will this SLO donate food and money for rent to this student’s family in addition to seeking job opportunities for them or will this SLO lurk outside of their student’s house waiting for his older brother to leave the house? What trauma will come of this student, the older brother, and their family should he make an arrest for selling t-shirts?
MYTH 4: The Police Department is charitably providing SLO services for free.
Azzopardi’s choice of words when describing how SLOs are funded is intended to fool the public into thinking that the Police Department is providing this service to the public for free. In reality, however, SLOs are paid for by the city’s budget and tax dollars. This omission of information is an attempt to redirect the attention to the service itself rather than to the method of funding. It also devalues people’s call for SSFUSD to sever ties with SLOs by making it seem as if people are mainly concerned about the perceived fiscal impact on the district’s budget. His statement only focused on concerns over monetary impact while failing to acknowledge numerous public comments about racial profiling, incarceration, and overall school culture and safety. SLOs are paid for by the city’s budget rather than the school’s budget, so although there is no fiscal impact to the school district, the city can redirect these funds in ways that better serve the school community. Instead of paying SLOs at an increased rate through the city’s budget, the funds could be reallocated into community organizations or service providers that could partner with SSFUSD schools to provide more meaningful support for the students. These funds could be supplemented by monies secured elsewhere if city government re-evaluates or passes new policies that prioritize social services that are crucial in supporting students and their families. The wages paid to SLOs (approximately 287 hour’s worth in 2019) could have been spent on providing mental health services and other forms of support from qualified professionals to students and their families.
MYTH 5: The call for schools to sever ties with police is too new of an idea.
Nearing the end of his presentation, Azzopardi expressed visible surprise in response to the call to remove officers from schools. He stated that in all the years of the SLO program, it was the first time that he was hearing such a call. Whether his surprise was genuine or performative, it was meant to paint SSFPD as being a unique department with very few flaws. It was meant to distance themselves from the officers that murdered Breonna Taylor and George Floyd or any of the data that and research that shown that racial biases exist in policing. While this may be the first time that the police department is being asked to no longer have SLOs in SSFUSD, South San Francisco residents and students have long expressed negative experiences and interactions with SSFPD. SSFUSD residents and students have not forgotten about the 2012 unjust slaying of Derrick Gaines at the hands of SSFPD. Families have not forgotten about their loved ones who have been arrested and put into a system where their mental health and employability is negatively affected upon release. It was clear that Azzopardi was only interested in only humanizing the experiences of police officers and of the people affected by mass incarceration in America. When Azzopardi downplays the fact that in the last five years 16 children and 1 faculty member have been arrested by SLOs, he is forgetting that there are families that have been traumatized from these experiences. He is forgetting that many of these individuals that have been arrested are coming from desperate living situations, much of which is out of their control. This urgent call to defund the police (which includes eliminating SLOs or SROs from schools) across the nation is not something that is new. People have been pushing back on how officers treat civilians and the many of the laws they uphold since the very inception of a police force in America. It should also be a concern to everyone in the school board that this program has been in place for 35 years and has not once had to prove its effectiveness to the school board. We now have decade’s worth of research to point to that shows that these programs were misguided and counterproductive.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
Some questions that we would like to ask the chief and the city council who use the people’s tax dollars to fund police are:
- Do you believe that SLOs, who get paid overtime, do a better job helping students with mental health and issues related gangs than trained and educated professionals?
- Why is it that of the 287 hours SLOs spent in and around schools, most of them are spent at schools with higher numbers of Latinx students?
- If police are sent to help with traffic, is it necessary that these officers be armed? Is this a job that only officers are capable of doing? Can the district employ more crossing guards instead?
- How much more or less education and training are SLOs getting than a mental health professional in addressing mental health issues with young people?
The presentation put together by Chief of Police Jeff Azzopardi and his staff paints an incomplete picture of the relationship between students in the South San Francisco Unified School District and the School Liaison Officers. Throughout the presentation, Azzopardi made many claims about the program that he did not back up with any data or research. When thinking about the causes of school shootings or crime, in general, one has to wonder what is the best way to ensure that they don’t happen or, at minimum, are greatly reduced. Perhaps preventative measures which include, but are not limited to, mental health services, curriculum that addresses hate on the basis of race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, or restorative justice practices in schools where students are able to authentically resolve their conflicts with one another so that they would not feel the need to shoot their peers and school staff. Such measures do not need to be run by SLOs/SROs or any individual with a gun and the power to arrest students on campus. Organizations and places like the RYSE Center in Richmond, California have been effectively implementing restorative justice practices in their cities and mentoring young people in developing them as leaders and productive citizens. Azzopardi, himself, along with city council members Mark Nagales and Mark Addiego, expressed interest in visiting and learning more about RYSE during a roundtable discussion of defunding the police with CHANGE SSF.
We hope to continue working with the board members of the SSFUSD as we reconsider the role of police in schools.