by Jen Roth and O. Ricks
When Urbana police chief Eddie Adair and Urbana School Board president Tina Gunsalus first approached the city council on May 14 seeking financial assistance in adding a new police resource officer to Urbana schools, they hoped that it would be a reasonably open and shut matter. As Gunsalus put it at the first meeting, the idea that adding a second police officer would have positive effects on Urbana schools seemed like “plain old common sense.”
But the matter ended up taking more than a month in the chambers of the council, and many questions still remain unanswered. At stake is the placement of a second police resource officer in Urbana schools fora total of six years. The first three years are to be funded by a federal grant, after which the Urbana City Council would be expected to pick up the tab for another three years.
The police are awaiting word from the US Justice Department as to whether they will receive funds distributed under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) in Schools program, which has allotted a total of $70 million in grants to communities seeking to hire and train school resource officers. Resource officers are regular police officers who have received additional training in areas like conflict mediation and juvenile law. The Justice Department will announce its first round of decisions as early as September, according to the Justice Department’s COPS web site. The grant itself has evaluation guidelines.
The Urbana City Council, however, took the additional step of writing equity guidelines into the ordinance that included the police department’s request for additional funding in the city’s budget. City council members Danielle Chynoweth and Esther Patt introduced the proposal, whereby the council agreed to fund the additional school resource officer for three years after the expiration of the Justice Department grant, provided that the police undertake an evaluation of how equitably the officers were performing their duties.
The council members noted that African Americans accounted for a disproportionate number of those involved in incidents for which police officers filed reports on the campuses of Urbana schools in the 1999-2000 school year. The proposal as passed required, therefore, that the police department implement a tracking system of the school resource officers’ involvement in on-campus or near-campus incidents, and aim to reduce racial inequities in arrests of students. But it did not specify how this reduction was to take place.
With two competing standards of measurement, it is far from clear precisely how the program is going to be evaluated once it is in place. Nor is it clear which evaluation will matter more in the long run-that of the Justice Department or that of the Urbana City Council.
Chief Adair says that he intends to implement evaluation procedures in accordance with the Justice Department guidelines. He plans to evaluate the school resource officer every quarter according to the conditions of the grant, some of which, he stated, include effectiveness in reducing the number of incidents and improving the perception of the school environment as a safe place.
However, the monitoring required by COPS, according to the guidelines found on its web site, consists mostly of tracking whether the money is spent in a manner consistent with the terms of the grant-for example, on special training for school resource officers-and not of evaluating effectiveness.The COPS program does not appear to require grantees to meet any defined standards of effectiveness in terms of reducing crime on school grounds or improving perceptions of school safety. Nor are concerns of racial or other equity specifically addressed in the terms of the Department of Justice grant.
The topic of equity has been the focal point of debate on this issue. Chief Adair does not think that the police should be charged with addressing such problems as equity, suggesting that equity is not something under police control. “Police are blamed for a lot of larger societal problems,” he stated in a recent telephone interview. “Police don’t target people; we target behavior. Equity is making sure that we’re consistent in our enforcement of the law.”
Chief Adair also suggested that the equity issue can be reframed as including one of gender. “Women are the majority of the population,” he observed, “but young males make up the bulk of the population in jail. That’s not equity.”
Sascha Meinrath is a graduate student in community psychology who spoke at the May 14 city council meeting on the issue. In view of the findings of the recent Champaign Unit 4 schools’ racial climate survey, he expressed concern that adding police resource officers to schools would result primarily in making schools less comfortable places for students-particularly students of color.
Little information exists on the effectiveness of school resource officers. Although programs which place police officers in public schools have been around since the 1950s, the practice did not become widespread until passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Urbana school system has utilized a school resource officer for the past seven years, but no records have been maintained with regard to the officer’s effectiveness.