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L.A. Unified police chief resigns after district slashes department budget

Los Angeles School Board member Monica Garcia wears a mask during a school board meeting.
L.A. school board member Monica Garcia succeeded Tuesday in her efforts to slash funding for school police as part of the budget for next year.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday approved an immediate 35% cut to its school police force, a reduction of $25 million, in response to weeks of protests by student activists and community groups who had called for the elimination of the department.

In the wake of the decision, the department’s police chief, Todd Chamberlain, who has been in the job less than a year, resigned from his post Wednesday, district spokeswoman Shannon Haber said.

The board action also calls for officers to give up their uniforms and patrol off campus, and will lead to the layoffs of 65 officers in the 471-employee department. The money saved from the cuts is to be allocated to fund staff to specifically serve the needs of Black students and a task force that will study ways to reimagine the issue of student and campus safety.

“L.A. Unified has to continue to be a leader in showing what can happen when we believe in self-determination, when we empower communities to help this organization transform itself,” said board member Monica Garcia.

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The 4-3 vote was supported by Garcia, Jackie Goldberg, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez. Opposing the move were board President Richard Vladovic and members George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson — all retired longtime school administrators who expressed concerns about safety risks.

District officials could not provide an answer Wednesday afternoon as to whether officers would keep weapons, after Goldberg’s chief of staff said Tuesday night that officers would be unarmed and barred from using pepper spray.

“I’m sitting in a roll call and everyone is in uniform and everyone has their weapons,”school police union President Gil Gamez said Wednesday afternoon.

The portion of Garcia’s language that was preserved said the money saved would go to “support African American student achievement to the extent of the law.” And until safety alternatives are worked out, all schools would have access “to appropriate community support in the event of an emergency.”

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Just before the vote, Garcia added an amendment that would bar the school district from replacing the school police by contracting with the Los Angeles Police Department, the county Sheriff’s Department or a private armed security force.

The vote to reduce the police force came at the end of a 13-hour meeting that started with public comments over the issue, which has roiled the school district since June 8, when leaders of the teachers union joined with activists and called for the elimination of the police department.

Several student protests in Los Angeles were part of a nationwide movement calling for the “defunding” of police. Local activists have long opposed the school police, but their effort gained momentum after the death in May of George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police.

L.A. Unified joins several other school systems, including Oakland Unified, that have recently decided to move away from bringing armed officers onto campus, whether they are employed by the district or are part of a municipal police force.

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The shape of the final resolution was a compromise between Garcia, who proposed a 50% reduction, and Goldberg, who offered the smaller amount as an alternative and added the provisions about the uniforms and where the officers could be stationed.

Goldberg advanced her compromise after Garcia pressed the issue by bringing it back to the board one week after her earlier defunding effort failed. Speakers against the school police dominated more than five hours of public comments; there also were numerous and impassioned defenders of the police.

“There is nothing I can say to move the board that hasn’t been said by passionate advocates,” Garcia said as she began her 11th-hour bid. Board members then debated for hours, just as they had last week.

Goldberg praised the quality of the school police force but said that the students “have made an impact on me.”

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She added: “I have been moved to tears since the death of Mr. Floyd.”

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Nationwide, protesters and activists have been calling to “defund the police.” But what does it actually mean? And why are so many people calling for it to happen?

Vladovic said it would have made more sense to get parent and student input districtwide rather than to act immediately.

Both he and McKenna talked of violent episodes in their personal experience as principals that justified the need for police. McKenna talked of officers establishing positive relationships with students, often serving as mentors.

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In fact, all board members spoke of the district’s police force as a model agency and preferable to relying on the LAPD or the Sheriff’s Department. Several L.A. School Police officers spoke passionately at the meeting about their own experiences and the need to maintain the department from the perspective they have as police officers and Black L.A. Unified parents themselves.

“That was a coordinated effort,"said Officer Travis Fenderson, who recently formed a Black police officers coalition. “There needs to be representation from ... behind the badge, that looks like the community.”

The groups pushing to eliminate the school police said they would have preferred Garcia’s original 50% cuts but would continue fighting toward the goal of eliminating the department.

“This decision is a huge step that the LAUSD School Board is taking to cut the school police department and fund Black futures,” said Students Deserve organizer and recent Venice High School graduate Mya Edwards.

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“The fight for real school safety has only just begun,” said Black Lives Matter L.A. co-founder and L.A. Unified parent Melina Abdullah. “A powerful coalition has formed and will not stop until we rid police from schools and invest in visions of safety that are grounded in meeting student needs.”

Christian Wimberly, a youth advocate with the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition, said that he attended Fairfax High School for two years, where school police were present, but that he felt safer as an 11th- and 12th-grader at CATCH Prep Charter High, where community members greeted students as they came and left campus, and mediated conflicts. There were no school police, he said. Now he hopes the $25 million in funding goes where it is meant to, quickly.

“A lot of people have made promises,” said Wimberly, 18. “That’s the only thing I hope, is that they’re going to be able to get the money to the people they say” will get it, such as counselors.

Before the vote, Chamberlain, the school police chief, told the board the cut would result in an immediate reduction of 65 officers and would limit officer presence at high schools to school hours Monday through Friday. In addition, he said, 39 vacancies would not be filled and there would be no overtime available to fill the gaps. The department has a total of 472 employees, including 344 sworn officers, who are certified to carry weapons.

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High schools typically have one assigned, armed officer, middle schools have an unarmed security aide and elementary schools rely on roving patrols for safety issues. Groups of officers typically arrive quickly at a school when a serious security call is sent out.

Officers also would not be able to provide security for adult and night school, he added. After-hours security would be virtually eliminated, making it difficult to deal with burglaries, vandalism and trespassing. A detective who focused on sex-trafficking prevention would surrender those duties.

Perhaps the most compelling loss, Chamberlain said, is that the department’s intervention and prevention efforts would have to end.

Garcia responded that the task force could have the goal of resolving the issues raised by Chamberlain in different ways.

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Vladovic said the cut, in effect, destroys the infrastructure of the police department.

L.A. Unified Supt. Austin Beutner said during the meeting that implementing a police cut of this size would take time and the board would need to provide more clarity on the intent of the amendment and the “letter and spirit of the directive.”

“If there is a belief that the staff can provide what exists now or differently in a span of weeks, I think that’s unrealistic,” Beutner said. “I will just share a little bit of my frustration that there wasn’t time to do the work that we as staff would like to do to properly inform this conversation.”


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