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Policing school police

After a video surfaced last spring showing an enraged school police officer slapping, kicking and cursing a student outside a city high school, the ACLU of Maryland and others called on the U.S. Department of Justice to broaden its investigation into the Baltimore City Police Department, which was already under scrutiny following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, to include the city school police as well.

It wasn't just the incident at REACH Partnership School in East Baltimore or an earlier confrontation involving a school police officer who was videotaped attacking teenage girls at Vanguard Collegiate Middle School that led to the community's concern. As became evident during a debate about whether officers should be allowed to carry guns on school property, residents' mistrust of the city's regular police extends to the school police force. The school police force is technically a separate agency from the BPD, but its functions often overlap with the larger force, and it has a similar legacy: a pattern and practice of racial discrimination that routinely violates students' constitutional rights, an excessive use of force that brutalizes victims and their families, and a lack of accountability that allows complaints of officer misconduct to go unanswered for months if they ever get addressed at all.

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The DOJ agreed to the request. Its conclusion: The city routinely blurs the distinction between the BPD and school police in a way that undermines accountability and sets the stage for abuses.

The DOJ found that the two agencies, though separate, routinely work hand-in-glove with each other, with school police often filling staffing shortages on the city police force as well as responding to calls and making arrests. The collaboration between the two forces is so close that DOJ investigators concluded that the school police in practice behave less like an independent agency than as a virtual auxiliary to the BPD.

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That commingling of functions can lead to serious problems, especially when officers from both agencies respond to incidents in which force is employed. A memorandum of understanding between the two agencies adopted earlier this year doesn't spell out when or how much force is appropriate by officers from either department in a given situation, but as a practical matter the report suggests that school police are as likely to use excessive force as their counterparts among regular city officers — perhaps even more so now that the BPD has a new, detailed use of force policy that emphasizes de-escalation.

The report also found inconsistent handling of complaints about excessive force by the school police such that some were never referred to appropriate authorities or investigated. The DOJ found when residents complained about officer misconduct, their paperwork often ended up at the wrong agency or got lost in the confusion over which department was responsible for disciplining the officers involved. Not surprisingly that further undermines public confidence in the ability of either agency to police its own officers.

The report leaves no doubt that the school police, like their counterparts on the BPD, are in need of thorough reforms that start with answering fundamental questions about their department's purpose. Are they a distinct agency whose mission, culture and practices are geared exclusively toward the special challenges of protecting the safety of juveniles in school, or are they street cops with a different badge, less accountability, unclear rules and muddied lines of authority? What the DOJ report shows is that under the current arrangement, there is no purpose to having a separate school police force at all.

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