Terry Falk
Op-Ed

Police Outreach to Teens a Failure

Violence over weekend dramatizes issue. School board called for changes in outreach program.

By - Aug 15th, 2016 02:53 pm
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Gas station at Sherman and Burleigh was set on fire. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Gas station at Sherman and Burleigh was set on fire. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Saturday’s violence on Sherman Boulevard shows that the interaction between central city youth and Milwaukee’s police department couldn’t get much worse.

Milwaukee Public Schools would like to be part of the solution, but the relationship between the school system and the police department has been somewhat rocky as well. The Milwaukee School Board has raised questions about the department’s STOP program, which may be reviewed when the board considers renewal of its contract with the department at the board’s Accountability, Finance, and Personnel committee at a meeting tomorrow.

The police department’s efforts in MPS go back to at least 1997, when a handful of police officers were place into several Milwaukee schools as school resource officers (SRO). This was done after an incident at Bradley Tech where several students used cell phones to call for backup from family and friends to help finish a fight between the students.

The Milwaukee School Board didn’t want police officers to patrol the halls like an occupying force. The board wanted officers to interact with students, have the students get to know the officers, have the officers get to know the students – as real people. When this interaction takes place, SROs can be highly effective in curbing violence.

And for a while this worked out fairly well. But over time, some principals and staff members increasingly called upon the SROs to enforce violations of school rules as violations of the law. Some SROs were only too happy to jump right in. And so the relationship between teens and the police got worse in these schools.

To his credit, Police Chief Ed Flynn recognized that the SRO program was headed in the wrong direction and wanted to make major changes. The problems developing in Milwaukee’s SRO program were being played out in other communities across the nation. In an August 11, 2016, Huffington Post article, “Set to Stun,” reporter Rebecca Klein outlined the increasing use of SROs in school as a force used to control students rather than build relationships. Schools that have SROs are far more likely to ticket and arrest students for minor offenses than schools without such officers. She pointed to a dramatic use of tasers by police in school fights and for failure to comply with basic adult orders.

The Milwaukee Police Department decided to launch a program in the fall of 2013 replacing the SROs. But Chief Flynn and former MPS superintendent, Gregory Thornton, implemented a new program without informing the school board, and the program has clearly had some problems.

The Students Talking it Over with Police or STOP program had police officers working with students on how they should interact with police. The theory was, if students know how to act, they were less likely to get in trouble with police.

The pilot had been implemented at Boys and Girls Clubs the previous year, and the police department pointed to a study from UW-Milwaukee showing the program had been effective.

The problem was that the study only showed that participating teens were more likely to know how police wanted them to act when they were confronted by an officer. The study never showed that a lack of knowledge was a major problem in the first place, nor that teens would necessarily comply in a positive manner with that knowledge.

For example, teens who participated in STOP were given a card they could present to an officer showing they had participated in the STOP program, but School Board members questioned how likely that was to happen if teens were with their buddies, watching to see if they were willing to stand up to the police.

In July 2015 the board voted unanimously to suspend the STOP program until an evaluation had been completed as to whether the program actually changed teen behavior and resulted in less confrontations with police officers. But police department representatives said they didn’t want any changes.

The department may have helped convince the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to write a positive overview of the program just a few weeks later. The August 21, 2015, article stated that the STOP program had “earned MPD the prestigious Webber Seavey Award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.” And the program was expanding to Racine and Mount Pleasant, and St. Louis was looking at it as well.

The MPS administration conducted a study using UWM professor Lorraine Malcoe and other community and school representatives. The study was completed, but hadn’t been shared with the school board until this week and was apparently leaked to the Journal Sentinel by someone.

On June 26, 2016, the newspaper did a story headlined, “’Horrible’ curriculum dooms program putting cops in classes.” A host of problems with the STOP program were outlined. A sub-headline called the program a “Recipe For Disaster.” The story noted that MPS had put a halt to the program and that Racine dropped STOP after one year.

Unnamed MPS officials told the paper “the curriculum needed to be more age appropriate, role-playing skits needed to be more sensitive to students who have experienced trauma, and the possibility of police misconduct needed to be addressed.”

News reports from this weekend suggest the MPD showed remarkable restraint this past weekend when violence broke out in the Sherman Park area. The Milwaukee youths who reacted did not know the circumstances surrounding the initial incident or whether the police officer involved had any other choice. They only knew another black man had been shot by the police.

There is no question that this community needs to develop a more positive relationship between the police department and youth in the city. But the STOP program, at least as it’s currently structured, isn’t the answer.

Terry Falk has served as a Milwaukee School Board member since 2007.

Categories: Crime, Op-Ed

8 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Police Outreach to Teens a Failure”

  1. Joe says:

    When MPS stops rating as one of the worst urban school districts in the nation, perhaps their board members will have a place from which to lecture other municipal bodies on how to appropriately address youth behavior. For now, this op-ed comes off as laughably tone deaf.

  2. AG says:

    This is a complete pile of crap… I know people who worked with this program and it was highly successful! It gave police and teens a chance to see a situation from each other’s perspective. The role playing brought up uncomfortable REAL circumstances. This program actually sought to tackle the real problems in police and community relations and interactions. In this day in age, when so many are demanding a chance in police community relations, this is exactly the type of program we need. I am furious that we let the “safe space” mentality get in the way of solving our real police-community relationship issues.

    You want something to change, stop getting in the way!

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    How was it highly successful? How exactly do you determine the success of a program like that? Not saying you’re wrong. Just curious.

  4. AG says:

    I think you determine the success from actual student and police feedback. While I didn’t see this program in action myself, the transformation between before and after the program between the kids and the cops was described to me as transformative. Especially during the role playing sessions, they said how it awesome it was when it clicked for the students what it was really like in a day in the life of a cop.

    On the flip side, the cops participating usually talked about how good it was to have positive interactions with inner city youth. We all know how cops can get hardened working in some of the toughest areas of the city, this was one way to help fight that.

    So are there stats that say “crime was committed by STOP participants X percent less than rest of population” or “officers who participate in the program have x less complaints against them” no, there’s not. But, my god, after all our calls for action to improve relations we have a program that the participants themselves largely said was beneficial for relations… why are we throwing this away?

  5. Vincent Hanna says:

    It’s a fair question AG. Reading about the weekend violence, over and over again people who live in Sherman Park and other north side neighborhoods talk about how important it is to improve community-police relations. I think we can all agree on that. My parents attended the Support the Blue event yesterday. My sister’s husband is MPD and his mother helped organize it with her church. There was not a single person of color present. It was held in a suburb and featured a lineup of Republican speakers. My parents said Clinton and Democrat bashing was nonstop. I don’t think events like that help, however good the intentions are. So there’s a lot of work we need to do, on all sides. There’s a serious disconnect and if this program was as productive as you say it’s a real shame it was ended.

  6. gloria says:

    Studies show violence increases when temperatures and humidity rise. Milwaukee’s nights of unrest followed several days of high heat and humidity that culminated with five murders in one day. A possible solution to our urban violence might be to provide free air conditioners to cool off at-risk neighborhoods. Perhaps Wisconsin billionaires–Joy Global, Menards, The Bucks owners, and Chris Able could improve their public relations with generous donations.

    A New York Times Sunday Review article “Weather and Violence” in August 2013 discusses new research.
    (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/opinion/sunday/weather-and-violence.html?_r=0)
    The authors call for new solutions: “Decision makers must show an understanding that climate can fundamentally shape social interactions, that these effects are already observable in today’s world and that climate’s effects on violence are likely to grow in the absence of concerted action. Our leadership must call for new and creative policy reforms designed to tackle the challenge of adapting to the sorts of climate conditions that breed conflict.”

    Another article is noted below.
    “Weather and Violence” New York Times Sunday Review .http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/opinion/sunday/weather-and-violence.html?_r=0
    “Temperature and Aggression.” https://public.psych.iastate.edu/caa/abstracts/1985-1989/89a1.pdf

  7. LowG says:

    The school board caved to a small group of overreacting anti-police activists. The STOP program was a solid effort to get youth and police to have positive interactions. I think the MPD, MPS, and concerned parents could have easily tweaked what they didn’t like and kept the program in place. If I had time and space here I could carve up essentially every single argument made against the program in the activists’ propaganda, leaving only a couple of MINOR changes to be made.

    I hope that MPS doesn’t ultimately kill it – I wonder if MPD would even bother to try and replace it- already so much time and effort went into creating this curriculum, why keep throwing away money if MPS doesn’t want to be a fair partner?

  8. AG says:

    Gloria… is that really your solution? Air conditioners? Yes crime increases when the weather gets warmer… but talk about chasing symptoms.

    Last I checked, there are many youth who, for some reason, do not commit crimes when the weather gets warmer even if they don’t have air conditioning. Believe it or not, it can be done. I’d guess it goes back to having a stable family, education, and direction in life. But maybe that’s just me… but by all means, keep coming up with ways to spend other peoples money to find tiny band aids for the gaping wounds of our society.

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