Residents Debate Police Presence in Schools

Burbank Police Commission Chairman Nidal Kobaissi, pictured here at a January meeting, presented a series of recommendations to the City Council this week, opening the door to hours of discussion.

On the same night the Burbank City Council designated February as Black History Month for the first time, the panel heard a commission’s recommendation to establish an annual appreciation day for local police officers.
The council quickly moved over the recommendation without adopting it, but some of the nearly 40 people who called during the public comment period for Tuesday’s meeting were frustrated it was included at all, pointing to Black History Month’s significance. It was one of several grievances expressed that night regarding the Police Commission’s recommendations.
The meeting, which stretched past midnight — forcing officials to push the planned discussion of homelessness to a future date — served as the culmination of months of work by the Police Commission to generate recommendations for the Burbank Police Department, a task the City Council charged the advisory body with following the death of George Floyd and widespread calls for police reform.
But when those recommendations were presented to the council, many residents took issue with their content, particularly with the advice that the school resource officer program — which assigns two specialized officers to the local school district — be retained or expanded. Several callers said they were concerned that the program intimidates and criminalizes students, particularly students of color, with some alumni saying they or their children had bad experiences with the officers.

A roughly equal number of callers voiced support for that recommendation, however, with many alumni offering positive anecdotes. Several also worried that if the program was discontinued, local schools would be vulnerable to shooters.
Ultimately, city officials pointed out, the decision about whether to continue or expand the program belongs to the Burbank Unified School District, since the SRO initiative was something the district had requested years ago. City Council members voted to hold a joint meeting between the city and the district leadership on the issue.
“We cannot make this decision in a vacuum,” Councilman Nick Schultz said.
Many of the public comments also concerned BPD’s funding — whether in opposition to defund any police program or a desire to see that funding is reinvested in mental health initiatives. However, if the district ended the SRO program, the officers involved would simply be reassigned.

SCHOOL POLICE DEBATED
Some residents took aim at the Police Commission’s methodology, saying members were overly dismissive of concerns and relied too much on the BPD for information.
The commission reached out to BUSD students, faculty, staff and parents last year, with commission chair Nidal Kobaissi saying that most responses supported the SRO program, and the responses that didn’t pointed to some national studies suggesting such programs increased the criminalization of students.
“To me,” said Heather Robb, who called during public comment Tuesday, “this was not the process of critical analysis that we were promised, and casts a shadow of doubt across all the recommendations.”
But, Kobaissi argued, many of the studies and arguments included in emails opposing the SRO programs weren’t Burbank-specific. “We didn’t want to rush into just doing what everybody else was doing, because I don’t think that that’s the right thing to do,” he said.
In the Leader’s review of about 200 emails sent to the commission regarding SROs, the vast majority — more than 70% — were supportive, particularly those from principals, teachers and other school staff members. Several wanted to see the program expanded, mentioning positive personal experiences with officers or a desire for students to have positive initial encounters with police, a refrain repeated on Tuesday.
“Our department should not be painted with the same brush as other departments around the country,” said John Anderson, who called during public comment Tuesday. “Our department has been ahead of the curve with education and implementation.”
About 14% of the respondents expressed opposition to SROs, while several other parents recommended altering the program, such as by limiting the issues on campuses to which officers could respond.
Sgt. Steve Turner told council members that in 2019, SROs responded to 230 calls, including criminal investigations, fire alarms, well-being checks and more. In 2020, that number dropped to 131, largely due to the closure of campuses.
Turner also explained that a major role of SROs is to investigate child abuse, having responded to 243 such reports in 2019 and 211 in 2020. He added that, contrary to some residents’ concerns, officers have not cited students for truancy in at least five years.
Furthermore, while acknowledging that some schools have disproportionate arrest rates for students of color, the BPD argued that isn’t the case in Burbank: out of the 12 arrests school officers made over the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, the department reported in a staff report, six students were white, three were Hispanic and zero were African American.
However, some residents who called the council on Tuesday insisted the presence of SROs made minority students feel uncomfortable.
“I hope that we continue to come to a place where policing is community-centered and there’s trust between the community and the police,” said Nikki Perez. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, and I think the first step is listening to community members of color, like myself, who are taking the time to call in.”
One group was hardly represented either in the emails received by the commission or during the public comment period: students. Only one current student emailed the commission, and one called the council on Tuesday.
“I think an important factor that’s missing is the student’s voice,” Ever Huerta, who attends Burroughs High School, told council members. “I think we should be including students more in these types of discussions.”

COMMISSION DISCUSSES MENTAL HEALTH
In somewhat shorter sections of the meeting, City Council members directed city staff to analyze the potential cost of expanding the BPD’s mental health evaluation team, also asking the Police Commission to study potential alternative forms of the program.
After some debate, council members also voted to once again expand the commission’s size to seven members, a move the council said would allow it to increase the other body’s diversity.
The MHET is a single two-person team consisting of a BPD officer and a Los Angeles County mental health worker, with the county and the city splitting the cost of the clinician’s salary. The team works 40 hours a week, though police Chief Scott LaChasse said all officers receive mental crisis training.
Council members expressed openness to expanding the program, which has been praised by city officials and then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Councilman Konstantine Anthony also noted interest in adopting a program that partners mental health workers with the fire department, as a pilot program is doing in L.A. city.
A more contentious issue was that of the Police Commission’s makeup. Some residents said they want more diversity in the group, though the commission’s own recommendation to the council regarding the matter was to “appoint the best-qualified person(s) for the commission regardless of any consideration of their ethnicity, color, gender, profession or any other factor that might exclude people from serving.”
Anthony, echoing concerns from some residents, suggested prohibiting current police officers from serving on the panel — a rule that would bar one present member. But Mayor Bob Frutos, himself a former LAPD officer, pointed out that current BPD officers aren’t allowed to serve on the commission.
Ultimately, the council decided to reword the recommendation based on Councilwoman Sharon Springer’s suggestion: “Appoint the best-qualified persons to the commission so the diversity of ethnicities, color, gender, professions and other characteristics of our Burbank community are represented and included.”
The City Council also planned to return the commission’s membership back to seven, meaning the group will have an additional two members later this year when applications for city boards are opened.
Some commission members warned that, with the increased size, they would need more direction — something council members quickly pledged to provide them.
Kobaissi reminded community members that the Police Commission had a list of topics it had not addressed by the time of Tuesday’s meeting, including animal control, partnerships with local groups and the Community Academy program.