The debate over police officers working in public schools landed in the virtual chambers of Chicago’s City Council Thursday at a joint committee hearing that featured defense from police and schools officials and testimony from a city watchdog who in the past has offered scathing criticism of the school resource officer program.
The online subject matter hearing came one week after Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s handpicked school board narrowly defeated a plan to yank Chicago police officers out of public schools, instead keeping the decision — for at least another month or two — largely in the hands of a select group of elected parents, teachers and community members at most of the 73 schools that have officers.
Though the hearing was pegged as an information-gathering session on the role of police in schools, CPS and CPD officials didn’t have answers to several key questions: How many students are arrested at school every year? How many schools with officers have active Local School Councils? How many officers have been removed from schools because of misconduct complaints? How many complaints have resulted in lawsuits?
Officials initially even said they didn’t know what exactly the $33 million pays for in a contract between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Police Department — though they later said it covers salary and benefits for the officers.
Education Committee Chairman Michael Scott Jr. (24th) and Public Safety Committee Chairman Chris Taliaferro (29th), who are both against a blanket removal of cops from schools, said in the lead-up to the joint committee hearing that they hoped to highlight changes made in the school police program to correct “deficiencies” identified by city Inspector General Joe Ferguson in a 2018 audit of the program.
In a follow-up report last summer, Ferguson accused the Police Department of ignoring four of his five recommendations. “If there was a sense of urgency, this would have been done by now,” the inspector general said then.
Ferguson in his testimony Thursday credited CPS and CPD for making an improved effort the past school year but said the program is still a work in progress.
The inspector general accused CPD of using its federal consent decree that mandates department-wide reform “as a shield” to drag its feet on necessary changes because the consent decree allows for a slower timeline and longer deadlines for change. He said the consent decree is a “floor for needed CPD reforms, but that it should not be treated as a ceiling, in terms of either substance or schedule.”
Ferguson also took a shot at Lightfoot’s stance that the decision on school police should be kicked down to members of Local School Councils, saying “the choice to limit community representation on this issue to Local School Councils” is “insufficient” by national standards.
“This tendency to give short shrift to quality community engagement is a broader issue for CPD and municipal government generally,” Ferguson said. “The tightly controlled and orchestrated community dialogue exercises that have become the norm exclude and alienate many concerned and engaged constituents and community members.”
Jadine Chou, CPS’ chief of safety and security, said the district will take into consideration concerns about the school cops program and will offer more guidance to the LSCs which will vote again this fall whether to keep their officers.
But Chou said “significant improvements” have been made to the program, and that she’s heard from parents, students and teachers who have said it’s “moving in the right direction, and in some cases it’s superb.”
Chou and CPD Deputy Supt. Barbara West, the third official testifying at the hearing, pointed to policy changes that include school resource officers no longer being allowed to intervene in student discipline, officers needing at least three years of experience on the force to work in a school and cops being required to undergo school-specific training.
All that is part of an August 2019 agreement — and further outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed in the winter — between the CPD and CPS that expires next month.
Students, activists and progressive aldermen have said that reform hasn’t gone far enough.
Ald. Sophia King (4th) said at a press conference held by the council’s Progressive Caucus ahead of the hearing that “the choices that are before us are false choices” because schools are choosing between an officer or nobody else, so of course they’ll choose the cop. Asked by King whether schools that remove their officers would keep the money used to pay for them, Chou confirmed that “CPS is not going to trade in those funds for other resources.”
And when Chou said CPS doesn’t track school arrests — acknowledging “that’s definitely something we have to do a better job of understanding” — Ald. Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez (33rd) said “this seems like a lot of critical data that is missing.”
Contributing: Fran Spielman