In 2014, Salt Lake police officers working as school resource officers at the district's four schools arrested 1,200 students. Last year, that number was 200-300.
The sharp decline in arrests—and so kids entering the juvenile justice system—reflects not an epidemic of good behavior. Rather its the cops taking a new tack on trying to address what's known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."
Activists and law enforcement meet every two weeks at the Salt Lake Public Safety Building
According to Sgt. Phil Eslinger, supervisor of eight school resource officers (SROs) at Horizonte, East and West High schools and Highland High, the drop in the number of arrests stems from in essence educating school administrators that there are more effective ways to tackle student discipline issues than through arrests.
Eslinger told the Nov. 2, 2016 meeting of the Community Activist Group, a bi-weekly gathering of activists against police brutality, and Salt Lake law enforcement, that previously SROs had been used to address disruptive students. "It's easy to go in and arrest [troublesome students] for unauthorized actions at a school. But as the years progressed, we decided that was probably not the best resolution."
SLCPD Chief Mike Brown told the group that his department had pursued a new model, where his officers "are taking a mentorship role."
Instead of sending students into the juvenile justice system, Eslinger said the focus became on how to keep them out. One option the SROs took advantage of was peer court, a diversionary program for B misdemeanors or less, where juveniles appear before a group of their peers and are given community service and support tailored to address some of the issues that lead to the behavior.
Eslinger quoted FBI chief Edgar J Hoover, saying "no amount of law enforcement can make-up for short falls in the family." Rather than trying "to arrest ourselves out of this situation," SROs were taking on more of a counseling role. He gave the example of a female student looking to fight another girl. The SRO puts both girls in a room only to find out the source of tension was a misunderstanding over social media.
Taking the route of mentors however has created some tensions with school administrators and teachers. "Resistance is coming from the school side, not the police side," Chief Brown said. As SROs backed away from enforcing discipline, so some teachers asked what then was their role at the schools. One officer cited the example of a principal telling the SRO to "scare" an autistic student out of his car so they could get him to class.
Activist Lex Scott repeated a request that has come up numerous times at CAG meetings—data. "Who's being arrested, who's being sent to peer court?" she said she wanted to know. Was a SRO only sending Hispanic kids to peer court, for example, she posited. Data would help clarify what was happening at the schools. "It would be great to know the racial make up, what they are being charged with," she added.
One activist questioned why have officers with weapons at the schools.
"Why would you not?" answered Eslinger, before apologizing, and then going on to explain that, in the age of school shootings, if there was an "active shooter" situation at the school, then an officer does not want to have to go to his car to retrieve his weapon while an armed assailant is hunting students.
SRO Doug Teerlink highlighted how individuals can come off the street who may pose problems. He told the group that at Horizonte where he worked, which is close to 1300 South Main, homeless individuals would go into the school, shower in the restroom sinks. "I spend a lot of time keeping them out of my school."
But even after students had graduated, Teerlink said, significant problems remained as far as keeping some youth out of trouble. He expressed deep frustration that youths who did graduate from Horizonte, would then struggle to find direction. He would go to their homes at 2 p.m. and find them sleeping.
One area for improvement several members noted was having female officers in the ranks of the SROs, given that girls might be more likely to report sex or abuse crimes to a woman than a man. Currently SLCPD's 8 SROs have only one woman on their squad.