The grainy cellphone video, widely circulated on the Internet this week, is appalling: A student at Baltimore's REACH Partnership School in Clifton Park is shown backed up against a wall by an angry Baltimore City school police officer who then delivers three powerful blows across the teen's face, accompanied by kicks and shouted obscenities. There is no excuse for it. Even without knowing what happened immediately before or after the snippet of tape was recorded by a friend of the victim standing nearby, it's obvious this officer is out of control and that there's no conceivable context in which such behavior would be appropriate or acceptable.
When officers misbehave with such apparent disregard for the law it destroys the relationship of trust that should exist between police and the communities they serve. Baltimore has already recognized it has a serious problem in that regard, which is why Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake asked the Justice Department to conduct an investigation of its police practices last year after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. But this incident and others have contributed to a similar atmosphere of distrust between students, parents and the city school police force, which is separate from the Baltimore City Police Department. The mayor should urge DOJ to expand its probe to include the school police as well.
Law enforcement officials have launched a criminal investigation into the incident, which took place Tuesday on the steps outside the city high school and which also involved a second officer. Both officers, whose names have not been released, have been put on administrative leave while the investigation is ongoing. School Police Chief Marshall Goodwin, who heads the school police, has also been placed on leave, though it remains unclear what his involvement may have been. Neither the name of the teen who is shown being assaulted in the video nor the friend who recorded the confrontation have been released because they are minors. Whether either of them attended the school is a matter of dispute, but it's somewhat beside the point. No matter who they were, why they were there or what they were doing, there is no way to justify the kind of force the officer used. It appeared designed to punish, not to restore order or protect the safety of the officer or others.
This isn't the first time a city school police officer has lashed out with what appears to be excessive force when confronted with uncooperative or insubordinate teens. Last year a school surveillance camera captured police officer Lakisha Pulley assaulting three girls — ages 11, 13 and 14 — at Vanguard Collegiate Middle School in what appeared to be an unprovoked attack. The video, which was broadcast on television news reports and went viral on social media, showed the officer repeatedly striking the girls with her baton as they cowered in a hallway. Officer Pulley eventually pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree assault and resigned from the force.
The presence of police in schools is fraught to begin with, as it too often leads the criminalization of bad behavior. The Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline, which includes assorted civil rights and youth advocacy groups, is urging better oversight and training of school police officers, particularly when it comes to de-escalating potentially violent situations and resolving conflicts peacefully; better data collection on the use of force; and more transparency. In other words, the school police need exactly the same kinds of reforms that the Baltimore City police do, and for the same reasons.
The public outcry last year when school police pushed to reverse a law preventing them from carrying guns on school grounds should have served as a wake-up call to the system that too many parents and students were feeling neither protected nor served by the force. Tuesday's incident suggests that whatever reform efforts the department undertook since then have been inadequate, and at this point, only an independent, outside authority like the Department of Justice is likely to be able to compel the kinds of changes necessary to restore public trust. Baltimoreans' civil rights can be violated on school grounds just as easily as on the street, and the DOJ's job won't be complete unless it addresses both.