In the past year, a national conversation has begun about the role of police and the rules that regulate policing. We have seen untold police atrocities, extravagances, and abuses around the country. The Mountain View Coalition for Police Reform and Accountability (MVCPRA) arose after the George Floyd protests last summer and has spent the past year working to understand public safety here in Mountain View.
We're immensely lucky: Many of the worst failures of policing are not present in the Mountain View Police Department. Consequently, we are in the enviable position of being able to imagine the next steps in improving public safety. We get to think about how to make a good thing better rather than how to restrain the worst impulses of a broken system.
In some ways, though, we are not exceptional: Like in so much of the rest of the country, over the past half-century we have given ever more responsibilities to our police force. In particular, we allow police funding to eclipse $500 per resident per year (compared to a median of $290 per resident for all California cities). Almost all cities in California spend less than $450 per resident on policing, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Scaling back the scope of policing is an obvious change we can make here in Mountain View that will save taxpayers money while making our city safer and more forward thinking at the same time. In particular, we can remove police from public schools and reassign some mental health tasks to relevant experts instead of police officers.
The role of school resource offers (SROs) has become an area of contention in recent years. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, students in schools that have SROs are five times as likely to be arrested as those in schools without SROs. Washington University Law Review finds that students with such infractions on their records are far more likely to drop out and struggle for employment.
Ostensibly, SROs increase campus safety, but they are not sufficiently trained, prepared, or present to intervene in dangerous scenarios, which invariably unfold suddenly and without warning. In fact, more people die in school shootings where SROs are present than at those where they are not.
So what good do SROs actually do? SROs themselves have told the public about their day-to-day job, describing how their primary roles of "mentoring, teaching, and educating" are hindered by their uniforms and the way students interact with police, as described in the June 24 Mountain View Public Safety Advisory Board meeting.
Based on their own assessment of the role they play, nothing necessitates a police officer fill that role. SROs are involved in incidents where there is a criminal aspect involving children during a school day -- like cyberbullying or teenagers speeding in their cars at lunch -- but they do not need to fill all roles that they currently do.
Even the name school resource officer calls this into question -- why must officer mean police officer? Teachers and counselors receive far more training and gain far more experience related to student needs and relationship-building than SROs do, and SROs spend much of their career outside of schools. Police officers are also paid more than other people who work in our schools, so if the role played by SROs was filled instead with a non-police actor, it would cost the public less. Alternatively, we could hire more people to do the work if these people were not police officers -- a cost-neutral way to expand services in our schools.
Such a step has been taken by our neighboring city Los Altos, which removed SROs from schools very recently. This is an accelerating trend in the region and the nation, and Mountain View should not be left behind. The services SROs provide are largely worthy, but they do not fit neatly into the policing job descriptions. Our police, our students, and our teachers would all be better served by a different system.
Mental health first response is another area where we as the public would be better served by redirecting calls to someone other than the police. Police, too, are largely unhappy with being the primary responders to such calls. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, "police agencies have been required to fill the void created by funding cuts in social and medical welfare systems, which often places police officers in an untenable position."
For decades, mental health services have received funding cuts that leave the police as the only ones left to call when a social worker or mental health professional would have been better trained, resulting in safer outcomes for all involved. Redirecting funding to such non-police systems would free the police force to respond to calls to which they are best suited and also make it more likely that people in a crisis can access the services they need.
The public largely understands this. A national March 2021 survey showed overwhelming support by likely voters for non-police emergency first responders to handle mental health, substance use, health and safety check-ins, and the unhoused population. Where such systems have been tried, they are largely very successful. Santa Clara County has a non-police first response system, but it is biased toward other parts of our county. We would all be better served by the city and county coordinating to expand such a system to better support us in Mountain View. A lot of positive work is underway to create mental health response programs in our region, but so far such efforts are small and not well-publicized. They have much promise and should be given all of the resources they need to succeed.
In order to have the public safety regime we deserve, we must reallocate some tasks to more appropriate actors. This isn't because cops are bad people or policing has failed -- it's because so many things police do today are not tasks we should be asking police to do! MVCPRA calls on Mountain View to follow the lead of Los Altos and other similar cities in removing police from schools, and we urge the city and county to work together to meaningfully reorient mental health first response to trained specialists.
Kelsey Josund is a Mountain View resident and is a member of the Mountain View Coalition for Police Reform and Accountability (MVCPRA) steering committee.