Oakland School Board to Weigh Dissolving District's Police Force

Demonstrators fill the intersection at 14th and Broadway in Oakland at a protest against police violence on June 3, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Galvanized by the nationwide call for police reforms in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, Oakland activists are pressuring the Oakland school board to eliminate the district's internal police force.

On Wednesday, Oakland Unified School District board member Roseann Torres will reintroduce a measure to dissolve the department and replace it with non-uniformed "peacekeeping ambassadors."

Torres spoke of the sorrow following Floyd's death and said, "It's time to just go for the whole gusto and say look, we don't even need a police department. Our schools are closed ... we're paying officers to sit at home."

Torres tried and failed in the same effort in March, when the board rejected a measure to reduce its police force by half in a vote of 4 to 3.

The primary argument then was saving money as the district grapples with deep budget cuts. The OUSD police force has been sued in the past — most notably in 2016 when a security officer choked and dragged a student. Now, activists say Floyd's death underscores the moral argument they have been making for at least a decade.

Sponsored

"Right now, we're calling on the community, our allies, supporters, anyone that wants to stand for black students and black sanctuary to call on the school board members to eliminate school police," said Jasmine Williams, development and communications manager for the Black Organizing Project (BOP). On Friday, BOP, along with the Anti Police-Terror Project and other coalition members, caravanned to several schools to rally around the issue.

Unlike other districts in the Bay Area, Oakland public schools have their own internal force which employs 10 officers, including its police chief, Jeff Godown. He also oversees about 50 school security guards and he estimates these personnel and their benefits cost the district close to $3.5 million.

In the past, Godown has argued his officers are needed, citing the large number of calls — 1,000 per semester — his department receives for help. However, this week Godown said he understands why some people don't want a police department, and he is willing to work with the superintendent on a new safety plan.

"I wanted the schools to be safe," Godown said. "And if we can make them safe with a hybrid between security officers and restorative justice experts and climate and culture ambassadors or some kind of hybrid ... I'm not against that."

Even if it means putting himself out of a job.

"I've been in this business for 40 years," Godown said. "And if that ends up being the outcome, that ends up being the outcome."

Godown, who has overseen social and emotional learning training for his officers, has long made the case that his officers know the students and are better at handling calls than the city's police force would be.

"Not every case of this school is something that restorative justice or social emotional learning will handle," he cautioned. "There are instances, unfortunately, where crimes occur where uniformed officers with guns and handcuffs have to go on campus and handle that problem over and above the active shooters that have occurred in this country."

BOP's Williams said police in schools don't make campuses safer and that the lack of investment in schools has contributed to students' behavior issues that surface while in class.

"So by taking away everything that students need to feel safe to even flourish — like after-school programs, nurses, therapists — and then kind of throwing up your hands when you see behavioral issues is kind of contradictory, doesn't make any logical sense," Williams said.

More Related Stories

BOP wants the community to help shape any plan to replace school police.

"We definitely don't think they should be having guns or replicating any kind of punitive, discipline officer," Williams said. "If they're supposed to be really protecting students — they should be approachable."

Williams noted that they should make students feel like they could go to them to resolve conflicts, "rather than this kind of punitive, authoritative, disciplined image that we see in schools in the community."

If Torres introduces the resolution on June 10, it would go to the board for a vote on June 24. Torres said she wants security guards, who would presumably lose their jobs under an elimination of OUSD's internal police department, to be able to reapply to be part of a newly created peacekeeping ambassador team.

The district is finalizing its 2020-21 budget this month.