Military Rifles in the Hands of Compton School Police
And how student outrage has temporarily halted the plan
by David Tobia
It’s about 4:30 on Sunday Sept. 14 when the Compton School Police receive a call about a suspicious person trespassing on Compton High School grounds. When the police arrive, they find a man holding an AK-47 style rifle. One of the officers fires his handgun at the man, who drops his weapon and runs away. The officers recover the gun, and later they find and arrest the suspect. As in most incidents involving guns and schools, no one was killed, and the “gunman” never actually shot anything. The police response and a single shot from an officer’s handgun are enough to calm the situation.
Luckily for the suspect, he is arrested rather than killed, an outcome that could have changed had the Compton Unified school board not delayed its initiative to arm Compton School Police with military grade AR-15 rifles. The incident comes just a day after Congresswoman Janice Hahn and Compton mayor Aja Brown led a community forum where hundreds of concerned community members discussed the increased militarization of school police.
Where it began
In July, the Compton Unified school board approved Police Chief William Wu’s plan to allow certain officers to use the assault-style rifles to combat terrorist attacks and mass shootings. During his presentation, Wu referenced an FBI report that found standard police weapons would not be able to penetrate the body armor used by shooters in 5 percent of mass shootings. He also referenced the 1966 University of Texas sniper shooting that killed 17 people as well as the 2008 attacks where Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba ambushed Mumbai, India using speedboats.
Wu’s performance struck former Compton High School student and current head of the Compton Democratic Club Francisco Orozco as erratic and desperate, as he argues “Wu was just trying to prove he could do anything” ahead of elections. Superintendent Kaye E. Burnside, Wu’s former colleague at West Contra Costa Unified School District, brought Wu to Compton Unified as Head of Human Resources, but his job later split so that he would serve as both Head of Human resources and Head of School Police, a combination Orozco says “definitely causes a conflict of interest.”
While Wu based his presentation on sensational anecdotes, the actual Urban Police Rifle Policy contains safeguards and training to protect students, and mirrors the programs already in place in Los Angeles, Baldwin Park, Santa Ana, Fontana and San Bernandino. This means that while Orozco and other Compton residents dislike the policy and the way Wu presented it, they are angrier with the school board, stressing that they are elected officials supposed to protect the interests of the voters. “The police have to do what the board says,” Orozco concedes. “It’s the board who is incompetent.”
While the policy is virtually identical to others in effect in other parts of southern California, the execution and timing of the vote launched the story into the national spotlight and put additional pressure on the school board to evaluate launching the program. The story’s coverage on KPCC, The Atlantic and The Washington Post corresponded with national fascination with Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and with the push against militarizing police forces, especially in areas as associated with racial conflict as Compton.
As the rifle policy gained more visibility, the community expressed its displeasure as people began flooding Congresswoman Janice Hahn’s office with calls. She, wanting to respect the wishes of her constituents in ways the school board has not, pledged to hold a public forum to discuss the conflict. The School Board had a chance to cooperate and defend the policy, but instead chose to suppress the public’s voice, restricting access to district property for the original September 9 meeting, and forcing Hahn to reschedule the forum for September 13. While Wu had stressed that the program was intended to save lives, Hahn saw it more as a militarization of what should be an educational space, releasing a statement saying:
I am concerned with the unintended consequences of a Compton Unified School Board policy that will permit school police officers to carry assault weapons such as AR-15 and AK style rifles on our school campus. Our schools’ police officers are there to ensure our children feel secure and ensure students have a safe place to learn. Sadly, school shootings across the nation have become all too familiar and I know that a similar tragedy in Compton is many parents’ worst fear. However, while we must take extra precautions to protect our children, our schools are not war zones and I understand the concern and alarm expressed by many in our community. Before the school board takes any further steps toward implementation of this policy, it is important that the voices of parents, teachers, students and residents are heard. I look forward to joining board member Emma Sharif in hosting a community forum to hear from both the school board and Compton residents.
The school board’s abrasive attitude towards the community has roots in politics and a structure of protecting its own power. Compton school board elections confuse voters, as incumbents flood the candidate pool with friends who are not serious contenders, forcing overwhelmed voters to revert to the simplicity of choosing an incumbent, even when they know it may not be the best choice. Voter turnouts hover as low as 7 percent in most school board elections, leaving fervent politicos, rather than common parents, deciding elections.
This web of race and politics depicts the rift between the Compton School Board and Compton residents not as a fight over guns, but as a pattern of incompetence and lack of accountability from elected officials; Just as protests spanning the nation are about more than the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the discontent in Compton is about more than arming police with AR-15 rifles.
The program was supposed to begin in September of 2014, but is currently on hold, according to Sal Villa, the Vice President of the Compton School Police Officers Association. Villa says the official status of the policy is that it “has not yet been implemented,” but could not give a timetable for when it will begin.
In society, as in biology, structure determines function; design a school as a prison and it will act as a prison. The Compton Unified School Board’s pause in the implementation of the Urban Police Rifle Policy is one step towards treating a school as a school.