Police Outreach to Teens a Failure
Violence over weekend dramatizes issue. School board called for changes in outreach program.
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.
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.