October 27, 2015; U.S. Department of Justice

On the heels of the news of videos of a white South Carolina school police officer wrestling a black teenage girl out of her math class, with mixed reviews of whether the arrest and violence of the incident was justified or not, the U.S. Justice Department released the “Implementation Guide” of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This report follows up on the recommendations of the Task Force’s May 2015 report of recommendations to “anchor…[the recommendations] in measurable and behavioral change and not in abstract theory around policing.” It is easy to imagine some of the activist nonprofit members of the task force, particularly Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, Jose Lopez of Make the Road New York, and Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, demanding that the Task Force lead to concrete changes, not simply a laundry list of good things to consider.

This Task Force report provides specific action steps for local governments, police departments, and communities, though with some irony in light of the incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, and the recent Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s dubious expert reports aimed at exonerating the policeman who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in a Cleveland, Ohio playground.

For example, the report calls on police departments to use training “as a tool to drive change,” recommending that police officers be trained in protecting human rights and dignity and that such training include issues of implicit bias and procedural justice, methods for de-escalating the need to resort to force, and ways of engaging the community. There has been much discussion about the inadequate training of “school resource officers” in general, exacerbated in South Carolina by the fact that South Carolina does its own training and does not send its school officers to national training programs sponsored by entities such as the National Association of School Resource Officers. The widespread criticism of the South Carolina officer’s behavior indicates a concern with his failure to take steps to deescalate the confrontation, a concern of civil rights groups that have long opposed the presence of police in schools, turning administrative issues into police actions.

“Instead of deescalating the situation, Deputy Ben Fields dehumanized and criminalized a Black teenage girl,” said Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis. “Current police culture has no place in our schools. Too often, police turn a place of learning into a place where handcuffing, arresting and criminalizing young people is normalized. The brutality of the actions taken by Deputy Fields in the video serves as yet another reminder that police officers do not belong in our classrooms and hallways.”

Not surprisingly, the Task Force report includes a recommendation that underscores Dianis’s observations about the South Carolina incident: “Review the use of school resource officers (SRO) and examine policies to ensure that the use of SROs is not increasing the school-to-prison pipeline but providing effective alternatives to incarceration through constructive interventions.”

The report also recommended that school stakeholders “review school policies and practices that may have an unintended consequence of pushing children and young people into the criminal justice system and advocate for strategies that are more effective at prevention and early intervention.” As disruptive as the high school girl’s behavior might have been, arresting a high school student whose offenses seem to have been a failure to stop talking on her cell phone and a rejection of the classroom teacher’s instruction for her to leave has turned a school discipline matter into a criminal justice incident.

To its credit, the Columbia school district has launched its own investigation and has suspended the police officer involved from entering any classrooms in the system until the investigation is completed. In addition, the Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina have launched a civil rights investigation, a pretty remarkable turn of events concerning a police incident that occurred only a day earlier.

Nonetheless, the Task Force report stands in stark contrast to the pictures of a school police officer handling a pupil in the manner he did. The first of the “underlying themes” of the Task Force report calls for “law enforcement to protect the dignity and human rights of all…[and] to ensure internal and external policies, practices, and procedures that guide individual officers and make organizations more accountable to the communities they serve.”

Unlike the troubling actions taken by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor in the investigation of what happened to Tamir Rice, a youngster who wasn’t even of high school age, there is now an opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, to make the school district’s police officers “accountable to the communities they serve” as local and federal authorities investigate why a school discipline issue involving a high school girl escalated into a violent law enforcement action.—Rick Cohen