Kids and Cops: School Resource Officers

In the 18th century, Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote “the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” I thought about that line when I heard that the school board in the city in which I served for two decades, Madison, Wisconsin was considering the termination of high school police liaison officers.

The blazer experiment

Lest we forget… as a young police officer in 1967 I studied the police section of the newly-released report from the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, I was impressed by their discussion and recommendation for Youth Service Bureaus and the idea that police officers assigned to schools could make a big difference in one powerful way – to divert kids from the CJ system and the youth to prison pipeline.

In my first chief’s job in 1969, one of the first things I did was assign one of my bright, educated police officers to our high school – to serve and divert! (If you recall, relationships between young persons and police were not so great at that time either!).

I did the same when I came to Madison as chief of police a few years later. Police in our high schools were NOT to look like patrol officers. They were to look like professional staff members and wear blazers instead of the traditional military uniform. Looks matter.

Since that time, and sadly to say, many of today’s police assigned to schools look like SWAT team members. My university education was in sociology and I learned that appearance matters; how you present yourself. Outfitting our police in tactical uniforms simply gives the wrong message to our young people.

Today

I think it is time that police re-think their mission with regard to being present in schools. What is their mission? Is it primarily to enforce the law; like truancies, parking violations, and classroom discipline? Or is it to help kids thrive and to do all they can to keep kids out of the system? Every police officer knows what happens once a child gets into our CJ system — far too few successes and many, many terrible outcomes.

The question I would present to those police who wish to work in a school environment is how do you wish to be seen and perceived by those whom you wish to serve and help?

— Here are some of the discussions that occurred in my city about cops in schools.

— School-based police officers respond.

— Are days numbered for School Resource Officers?

— Police Chief pushes back.

— Here’s an interesting blog on the history of police uniforms.

— And here is a blog from a school resource officer who seems to get it (however, you will notice that she is wearing what has become common place today – tactical patrol gear. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for school wear.)

“Policing from within…”