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Future of on-campus officer remains in limbo

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Last Thursday the Claremont Police Commission gave its approval for a complete reimagining of public safety on Claremont’s school campuses, but fell short of advising that the current program, including the school resource officer position, be eliminated. The commission’s action followed a presentation by an ad hoc committee tasked with determining whether the SRO program was effective and whether it could be detrimental to learning.

Following hours of discussion, the commission ultimately tabled its decision on the on-campus uniformed and armed officer and will consider it again at a future meeting. They also delayed deciding on assigning a member of the police commission to serve as liaison to work with the school district Advisory Committee on Racial Equity

The commission did amend and approve a series of recommendations including expanding training officers receive in de-escalation and student mental health issues; expanding direct students access to mental health professionals; expanding teacher and staff training in behavior management to reduce student misbehavior that would require police response; and requesting that the police department provide updated reports on SRO citations and arrests in winter and summer 2022.

The SRO ad hoc committee, including commissioners Rafik Mohamed, Becky Margiotta and Vice ChairRolondo Talbott, was created by the police commission during its September 3, 2020 meeting in response to comments from the public and questions from the commission about the ongoing program.

“The presence of an SRO may increase disciplinary actions for students and ‘redefine disciplinary situations as criminal justice problems,’” according to the ad hoc committee’s presentation. “Systematic reviews of empirical research have found schools record significantly more incidents of exclusionary discipline (suspensions or expulsions) after the introduction of SROs and increased punishment for low level offenses or conduct code violations.”

Claremont Police Department SRO citation data indicates a substantial overrepresentation of Black and Hispanic students among those issued citations, according to the committee. Racial disparities were also present in SRO arrest data from 2018 and 2019. However, “The sample size was so small it would not be prudent for us to draw any significant conclusions from arrest data,” commissioner Mohamed said.

While introducing the ad hoc committee’s recommendations, commissioner Margiotta said the six bullet items listed were “each distinct” and “intended not to be dissected, but to be holistic.” But ultimately dissection is exactly what transpired.

The first recommendation would have “discontinued financing” of the SRO position effective June 30, 2022, and reassigned officer Jennifer Ganino to “an appropriate lateral designation with a secondary assignment to the Claremont Unified School District for student-specific service calls.”

The second half of that first proposal would establish a panel of stakeholders including students from the middle and two public high schools, police representatives, city and school officials, parents, and community leaders who would be “tasked with reimagining school safety in Claremont schools and designing a new program that reflects the needs of students, staff, and the community.”

Commissioners Caleb Mason, John Perez, Frank DeLeo and Jon Strash, expressed reservations about eliminating the SRO position and during debate the decision was made to pass the second half of the first recommendation, while continuing the debate on the SRO itself.

 

Understaffing of patrol officers?

Commissioner Mason said he was particularly influenced by remarks from Claremont Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen that eliminating the position would result in understaffing of patrol officers whenever one was called away to handle an incident on campus.

Chief Vander Veen explained they hired a non-sworn “report writer” officer, enabling the department to drop from four to three sworn patrol officers. However, this calculus was only workable because the SRO covered all police duties on campus including attending events like football games.

Currently there are two officers assigned to the geographical areas south of Foothill Boulevard, and one above Foothill. If the SRO position were eliminated, the officer who covers the north side of the city would respond to calls at CHS, leaving the streets above Foothill without a patrol officer.

The SRO position is unique in another way because CUSD covers half of the salary.

“Is the ad hoc committee recommending that the city increase the police department budget $75,000—the amount we would lose from the school district—to allow us to put that fourth officer back in place while allowing us to keep the unarmed report writer?” Chief Vander Veen asked.

“What we are really recommending is redesigning safety from the ground up with an equity lens,” commissioner Margiotta said. “So it would be impossible for us to know what the recommendations of that [stakeholder] panel will be at this time. But to be clear, we are definitely recommending continuing funding of the SRO for the entire next year.”

Commissioner Jonathan Huang asked Chief Vander Veen if she felt the city was adequately covered for public safety with the three patrol officers.

“I personally, living in this city, would not feel comfortable if we had to drop down to three officers with those officers also handling calls at the schools. We would have to add that fourth officer,” the chief said.

Commissioner Mason said he had given the issue considerable thought, but concluded some of the comments about what the statistical information illustrated were inaccurate. He ran the SRO citation data through a calculator that measures statistical significance and the results did not support the conclusion.

“There isn’t any statistically significant evidence in any of the data we have seen about the actual behavior of the SRO on campus indicating any statistically significant racial disparity,” commissioner Mason said.

“Statistical significance and possible patterns are not the same thing,” commissioner Mohamed responded. “If you look at what larger studies, larger samples have shown with respect to SROs and some of the disparate impacts on racial minority communities, they have shown in statistically significant ways that these patterns exist.”

“The key piece of data that is missing from here is any data of the efficacy of the SRO in Claremont or anywhere else at least for its stated purposes,” commissioner Mohamed said.

Public comment on Thursday, much like previous commission meetings, was heavily against continuing the SRO program. The SRO survey analysis, which was part of the ad hoc committee’s report, provides a different snapshot of public opinion.

Out of the 1,261 total survey respondents, 65 percent were in favor of keeping the SRO and another 10 percent were neutral. Of the 723 parent respondents, 71 percent were in favor and 11 percent neutral. The strongest voice of support for the SRO came from the 117 responses from CUSD staff, with 86 percent positive and five percent neutral. The only group that was opposed were 172 student responders with just 34 percent in favor, eight percent neutral and 58 percent opposed.

“The results of that survey, which is by far the broadest spectrum of opinion from our community that we found, in my view can be only characterized as strongly in support of keeping the SRO,” commissioner Mason said.

He said we should trust the education professionals who overwhelmingly voiced support for the SRO.

“You can’t blame the SRO for the problems and the mental issues that are occurring. There is no racial disparity. I agree with commissioner Mason on that. There are issues and they need to be addressed and they need help. They have been locked out of school for a year and a half and I don’t even know how they are surviving,” commissioner DeLeo said.

“I am speechless, what I see happening is white men disputing, telling a Black man with a PhD and expertise in this topic about statistics. It’s just mind blowing and I know that the commissioner rules say that you should refrain from hostility toward one another. And I am so deeply disappointed in what I see as racism doing as racism does and I am going to say it like it is. If that makes you uncomfortable, I am sorry. But oh wow, wow the arrogance. You guys can make the statistics say whatever who want them to say,” commissioner Margiotta said. “And by the way all we have to do is punt the ball to the city council, the elected officials who should be weighing in on this stuff. I got nothing else to say. I can’t remember the last time I felt this disappointed in my life.”

Commissioner Perez challenged commissioner Margiotta on her comments, saying the body has a responsibility to remain professional, to which she responded that when people’s behavior meet the definition of racism it’s not unprofessional to say so.

Vice Chair Talbott expressed concerns the first recommendation was being viewed in absolute terms, to get rid of or keep the SRO. In his view, it is an opportunity to have a broader discussion and reimagining of the program, which might include some semblance of the SRO. “I think what this is really doing is giving us an opportunity to take a system and improve it and look at what can be possible for the next generation,” he said.

“Thursday’s police commission meeting was a master class on gaslighting and fear mongering to maintain the status quo. The remarks of commissioners and Chief Vander Veen were a stunning display of indifference and hubris. By dismissing the lived experience of our neighbors, our majority white city is saying ‘we don’t care what your reality is.’ Our city council must take pause to examine what true public safety means for Claremont and question who they have entrusted with this responsibility,” Noah Winnick, cofounder of the grassroots police reform advocacy organization Claremont Change said.

“I do agree with looking at the position and how we can do better and I definitely hear the students’ concerns and I truly feel for those that are hurting,” Chief Vander Veen said. “Your recommendation says to discontinue financing but still have that officer available to handle school related calls. An officer will be on campus regardless of whether there is an SRO…So discontinuing the funding and still having the officer available is not a realistic recommendation.”

The police commission’s final recommendations on the SRO could come back up as soon as the July 1 meeting and the city council will consider the recommendations in July. The CUSD Board of Education may discuss the commission’s recommendations, and decide whether or not they will continue to fund the position.

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