Recognizing Bad Policing

July 10, 2007

The NY Times’ Bob Herbert is publicizing incidents of bad police practice in schools. In his latest, he describes:

a cop who grotesquely abused his power by invading a high school classroom in the Bronx because a girl had uttered a curse word in a hallway. Not only did the cop handcuff and arrest the girl in a room filled with stunned students and a helpless teacher, but he arrested the school’s principal, who had attempted to reason with the officer.

As a recent ACLU report makes clear, this is not an isolated incident.

That police practice in high-poverty schools often leaves much to be desired should not come as a surprise to education reformers. After all, the education reform community is appropriately quick to criticize bad teaching practice in high poverty schools. Yet few edu-bloggers have focused much on the issue, and some of those who have argued that Herbert has it wrong.

My friend Whitney Tilson argues,

“I’m not buying for an instant Herbert’s assertion that police officers in NYC’s public schools,” and “I suspect that incidents in which police officers are out of line are extremely rare — it’s just that in a system with 1,400+ schools and over 1 million students, even if there’s a 1/100th of 1% ‘error rate,’ that will yield dozens of juicy stories for reports (like the ACLU’s) and reporters (like Herbert) to go nuts over.”

This reaction has long surprised me–so many smart people have really high standards for teachers and really low ones for police officers. But both of these groups have a tremendous influence on poor communities, and we should have high standards for both.

Edu-types should get this, because many of the same things that lead to poor teaching lead to poor policing, and many of the same structural issues that protect bad teachers also protect bad officers. These include: low pay, low barriers to entry into the profession, poor training (if you think education schools are bad, talk to smart officers about the police academies in some cities), strong job protections, administrators who don’t document poor performance, and a culture of low-expectations. Indeed, the same low expectations that allow terrible teaching practice to continue also let terrible policing practices to go on. Too many people think poor kids don’t deserve better.

Teachers and educators and education reformers should all care about this issue, a lot. The bottom line is that our work in schools is trying to change students perceptions of who they are and who they can be. When they are treated like criminals instead of scholars by police officers, either in schools or in their neighborhoods, that has an impact.

Update: I e-mailed a version of this post to Whitney, whose response is here. I take Whitney’s point about the bias in the ACLU report, but I would still recommend people check out the reference to Julia Richman, on page 24. Regardless of how big a problem bad policing in schools is, I think it is pretty clear that the Julia Richman approach to school safety is the way to go.

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