For Keeping Marin Schools Safe, Is Less Policing the Answer?

June 6, 2022


“I was one time driving in a suburban area of Marin. I was just leading an anti-racism workshop, and at that time I happened to be driving a brand new car. As soon as I pulled out, I was followed for 3-4 miles by a cop, who ultimately pulled me over. His first two questions were ‘What are you doing here?’ and ‘Who owns the car?’’’ 

Cesar Lagleva, a SRHS alum from the class of 1986, was telling me about a time he was racially profiled by Marin police. Lagleva refused to disclose which police department was involved in this incident to prevent any risk to his safety. Racial profiling is an issue that has been talked about more recently, and Lagleva is not the only Marin resident to experience this. 

Jeremy Portje is a freelance journalist in Marin. While filming a documentary about homelessness in Marin, Portje was arrested by Sausalito police, and his equipment was seized. Portje’s shoulder was injured in the arrest, and although the charges have since been dropped, Portje has announced that he is filing a lawsuit against the Sausalito Police Department. In an article by ABC News, Portje said, “I honestly don’t feel the treatment and the disrespect and disregard for me would have happened if I were White.”

Cristina Solano, an SRHS alum from the class of 2016, described a negative interaction between Solano’s group of friends and San Rafael police officers. She described how she was hanging out with her boyfriend and his cousins, when they were stopped by the police. The police told them they were under suspicion for carrying a gun, although she suspects they were using this as an excuse to search the car. She recalled the cops saying, “Who does the car belong to?” 

“The police were yelling at us and telling us to walk backwards. The cousins only speak Spanish, and the police were getting so angry at them when they weren’t doing what they said,” Solano said. The entire interaction lasted 90 minutes. As Solano’s group were being ordered to walk backwards, two police officers urinated on the sidewalk. Solano recalled that one of the officers present was a Hispanic woman, but she did not talk to the Spanish-speaking cousins. When asked how she thinks police could improve, Solano said, “It might help for bilingual cops to interact with non-English speakers. That way, they are talking to someone who speaks Spanish too.”

The issue of racial profiling in Marin relates directly to San Rafael High School. Until September of 2020, a Student Resource Officer was present on campus. Lieutenant Scott Eberle elaborated further on the role of SROs on school campuses. “Over a three year period, the SROs were primarily responding to mental health crises, drug and alcohol related issues, and assault and battery related issues (fights).” In three years, all 387 of these interactions resulted in an arrest or citation. 

In San Rafael, SROs were removed from San Rafael High School, Terra Linda High School, Madrone High School, and Davidson Middle School. This was due to community pressure that claimed that the SROs were a threatening presence to students of color. The community has since explored the option of replacing the SROs with social workers to deal with the same issues that Lieutenant Eberle described.

Mayor Kate Colin offered her own perspective on the removal of SROs. “The SROs are something that the school requested. When the school started to hear feedback from students, it was not something that the community wanted. The city would never come in and put SROs on campus without school leadership. When the schools said that it was not the right approach, we removed the folks that were providing the service for the school,” Colin said. The removal of Student Resource Officers was a community-driven effort that was ultimately successful in the San Rafael District.

One of the biggest pioneers in this effort is Police Free Schools Marin. PFSM is active on social media and gained prominence after the George Floyd protests of 2020. Ryn Zucker, a founding member of PFSM, offered her perspective on the SROs. “SROs are a symptom of the prison industrial complex that is racist, so they often target BIPOC (black and indiginous people of color) students. They are responsible for the school to prison pipeline,” Zucker said. She went on to talk about how Student Resource Officers have cited and detained Latino and black students disproportionately to white students. An article by the Marin IJ backs this claim, stating that the percentage of minority students cited or arrested by SROs is more than 20% higher than the percentage of minority students at the schools.

Mahalia Morgan, a San Marin High School student and member of PFSM, recalled witnessing students’ interactions with SROs on her campus. “You could tell there were tangible differences with the way students of color and white students were interacting with the police on campus,” Morgan said. When asked about specific times she witnessed, Morgan said, “My friends of color were heavily targeted by the police. When students would walk to the Harvest Market, there were multiple accounts of the police following them.”

Don Carney, the leader of Youth Transforming Justice (YTJ), offered his critique on the current role of SROs. “We don’t want police officers playing drug counselors or mentors or anything else they haven’t been adequately trained for,” Carney said. When asked about what a campus with an SRO looks like, he said, “The biggest problem was that the SRO would identify students who had broken school rules (mostly around drug use). At lunch break, they would follow the student. They would look for any violation to stop and search them. This caused BIPOC kids to distrust law enforcement, and the white kids with substances turned sour on the police as well.”

Most recently, it has been PFSM’s goal to remove the SROs from Novato schools, including Novato High School and San Marin. However, there has been some debate over when police are necessary at schools. Phoebe Smith, a district worker in restorative practices, said, “Police should be called only in response to drug possession, selling drugs, battery, theft, or vandalism.” This point of view is different to that of PFSM, who advocates for some of these issues to be handled internally. Smith went on to talk about how her issue with SROs is their disproportionate arrests of students of color. “There is an inherent belief that people of color are bad,” Smith said, referring to how internalized racism affects policing. 

When examining a police-run program such as Student Resource Officers, it is important to observe the wider system of policing. As Lieutenant Eberle explained, the SRPD is set up in many different divisions to respond to different types of crimes. Eberle explained that mental health issues are not handled by the police, but a team to get people help. 

When asked about the department’s actions in the case of corruption, Eberle said, “Corruption is dealt with with strict action. No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop.” According to Eberle, no allegations have been sustained, bringing up the increased use of body cameras in accountability. “In a 6 million dollar career, corruption does not make sense,” Eberle said. He confirmed that if an officer is found guilty of corruption, they are fired.

Recent changes in policing can be attributed to the murder of George Floyd and the resulting resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Eberle showed disdain for recent anti-police sentiment, saying, “We were heroes. People loved first responders. It’s too bad one idiot messed it up for all of us.” However, Eberle showed support for the legal ramifications of the protests, saying that policing has changed for the better, and there are “good new laws” paving the way for accountability. The last thing Eberle brought up was his pride for his job as a police officer. “Policing is not a job for me. I look forward to going to work every day, and am eager to change someone’s worst day into a positive experience,” Eberle said.

Captain Jim Correa is the bilingual captain of the Novato Police Department, and an SRHS alum. When asked what he believes the job of a police officer is, he said, “Mediation and prevention.” Like Eberle, he confirmed that he does not see mental health issues as something to be handled by the police. “They did not decide to be a person with a mental health issue. When calls from schools involve a mental health crisis, we sometimes say this is not best suited for police,” Correa said. 

When asked about response to criminal activity, he said, “It is our goal to talk our way out of everything, and use the least amount of force as possible.” About the protests of 2020, Correa said, “Although the reputation of police has been hurt, it has brought up important conversation. Police misconduct is a societal issue, not an individual one.” Correa explained that efforts to end violence, poverty, unemployment, and improve education will go a long way in fixing this societal issue. “The best we can do to help the mentally ill is increase treatment and counseling, and get police out,” Correa said. 

Correa’s closing thoughts were about his own reputation as a police officer. He said that he would not be opposed to conversation with an anti-police activist, and would say, “Give me a chance based on who I am and meet me on a human level.”

But police are just one factor in the wide web of the Marin County criminal justice system. While police work every day to hold criminals accountable for their actions, public defenders work on the other side to protect the rights of the accused. David Sutton, a public defender in Marin County, shared his own perspective on the police’s role in the justice system.

“A police testimony focuses on the elements of the offense, trying to prove a case. You rarely see a true objective police report because that is what is being sent to the district attorney’s office for charging decisions. There’s not a lot of background information or objective facts or facts that would support our client’s story. It is mainly focused on charging decisions and conviction,” Sutton explained. 

When asked about examples of police misconduct, Sutton mentioned Fourth Amendment violations as one of the most prominent examples. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Sutton said that in the case of a Fourth Amendment violation, a defense attorney would file a motion to suppress, and this is not uncommon in the courtroom. If a judge finds that there was a violation, such as a search without a warrant, the case could be dismissed.

Sutton also agreed that communities of color are often over-policed. “You have to look at where the policing takes place. Law enforcement is more active in communities of color or people who are indigent, then that’s going to result in more arrests and more cases for people coming from those neighborhoods and circumstances,” Sutton said.

He then stated his belief in the presence of systemic racism in the institution of policing. When asked how this could be changed, Sutton said, “Rather than law enforcement seeing residents of these neighborhoods and communities as threats, and always up to no good, there needs to be real investment of these officers in these communities. Problem solving instead of arrests can start undoing 400 years of injustice.”

Sutton then went into detail about how much arrests and convictions can set people back in housing and employment. A lack of housing and employment opportunities lead to poverty, and poverty inevitably leads to more crime. According to a study by Brookings Institute, only 49% of prison inmates were employed three years prior to incarceration. Only 13% made over $15,000 a year. Sutton made it very clear that this issue is not only present in Marin, but nationwide as well. “The justice system is cyclical and circular. Once you’re in the system, it’s almost like a trap and it’s hard to get out of,” Sutton said.

In Marin County, a new type of justice system is being explored in the form of restorative justice. Restorative justice is in full effect through the program Youth Transforming Justice, run by Don Carney. This program aims to keep minors out of the criminal justice system. I have been a part of YTJ for almost a year now. From my time in YTJ, I do admit I have some biases toward it, as well as problems with it. 

Hearings at YTJ are very different from trials in the court system. The hearings are entirely run by students. This is usually a mix of volunteers and former respondents doing their restorative plan. Carney starts each hearing with a speech reminding the students to be restorative. Although I have served on the jury for a variety of cases, the majority have to do with marijuana and alcohol. Each student juror is required to ask two questions to the respondent, and are encouraged to ask more. At the end of each hearing, the student jury deliberates and decides on a restorative plan based on the respondent’s strengths; that ensures the respondent will have no criminal record.

Carney explained that one of the main goals of YTJ is to avoid suspension. “Suspension is a main link for the school to prison pipeline, and indicates continued contact with the police,” Carney said. However, he continued to give an example on how police involvement can sometimes be more beneficial than the school to handle situations. “I had a BIPOC middle schooler. His mother found a bunch of baggies and an electronic scale. He was obviously dealing. The mother was scared for her son, so she went to school and asked the principal for her help. The principal expelled the kid for dealing. The kid’s out of school for three months. If the parent had gone to the police, the worst that would have happened was an infraction, like a traffic ticket. And he would have been able to stay in school, so that’s a strange set of circumstances,” Carney said.

Despite YTJ being an effective alternative to the juvenile justice system, I have noticed some flaws in the program during my time on the team. These meetings are largely focused on harm that a respondent had done to the community or individuals. In reality, most respondents are referred to the peer team due to alcohol or marijuana use. In these cases, I believe that the focus should not be on harm done to the community, but the harm done to the respondent themself. Rather than give a respondent 20 hours of community service, I think that it would be more appropriate to give them resources to get them help with substance use.

Phoebe Smith also mentioned YTJ as an alternative to the criminal justice system. “Restorative justice is the antithesis of the carceral system,” Smith said. Smith stated that she believes that restorative justice should be used not only for the youth, but also for adults. “Mental health issues and substance use should both be restorative,” Smith said.

Cesar Lagleva voiced his support for restorative justice, but also explored possibilities where restorative justice is not possible. “If there are two conflicting people who are not able to come to a conclusion on who was at fault and who is the victim, then you go to a dispute resolution system. Meanwhile, restorative justice has somebody who did the harm and a clear, identifiable victim,” Lagleva explained. When asked about YTJ itself, Lagleva said, “Don’s my boy, he and I go way back. Absolutely youth justice is a good example of restorative justice, but it would be good for it to be complemented with a dispute resolution system.”

Many sources hold that there is still a racial and class-based divide when it comes to policing. However, more progressive outlooks on policing, such as those held by Lieutenant Eberle and Captain Correa, could be steps in the right direction. Many people now agree that keeping police officers from responding to problems related to mental health crises would be a good first step in reform, something already being implemented in the cities of San Rafael and Novato. The removal of SROs may also be less controversial if mental health professionals were integrated into schools in place of police officers. Restorative justice better addresses mental health issues, drug possession, and fights than suspensions and other punishments. A cooperative solution might include a reduced scope of policing, restorative justice, and hardworking attorneys like David Sutton to move forward. In the wide game of the criminal justice system, the only way to win could be working together, not as opponents.

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