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Here's what it's like to be a school resource officer in Arizona

And now let’s turn to someone who knows the SRO program intimately. Lieutenant Bill Farmer is the school resource officer section commander for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. 

Farmer spoke with The Show more about the job, and the difference between the outward-facing security work they do and the internal, community work that they do.

‘Our entire program is based around a trust’

BILL FARMER: I’ll tell you, you know, the five years that I was, that I was in the unit, it’s one of the most beneficial times that I’ve had. I actually came to the unit from our violent crime section. Spend a lot of time, you know, investigating shootings and stabbings and, and the bulk of those interactions have a tendency to not be, you know, positive in nature.

When you get into the school resource officer world, you, you find that that kind of flips the script on what you experience with what people would, would expect from, you know, typical policing, when you’re in the school environment and you’re around, you know, the student body, the student body that I was, that I was around there happened to be about 2,500 kids. You’re finding all of a sudden that now you’re having all of these, these positive interactions and the bulk of, of what you do on the day to day is positive.

So, let’s talk about the goal when you’re in SRO like in the training that leads to that. Right. I think schools started putting SROs in schools back in the 1990s, essentially in response to concerns about rising school shootings. Is that still the main goal? Do you see that as motivation for, for what you do?

FARMER: So it’s, it’s a part of the motivation. It’s a part of it, you know, to offer an additional security measure to kids. So that, I mean, we all know that, that when you feel safe, the learning part of being a kid becomes easier. But I think, that’s, that’s a, a very small portion of what we do. You know, the, the goal is to that end to be there to deter that kind of thing from happening on one of our campuses, to detect it early. And then ultimately, if, if somebody does try to come on campus to do, to do bad things to our kids, that we’re there as, as their, their first line protector.

But it’s so much more than just that. It, it really is an opportunity to reach out to the community to serve as a mentor for kids who, who may not otherwise have one, to help supplement some of the teaching that happens on campuses.

How often, or is it rare, I guess, that it ends up being the students themselves who are the ones who you’re dealing with, like breaking up fights or, you know, arresting or punishing students for various misbehaviors?

FARMER: Well, in the school resource officer business, that the law enforcement side of what we do, it tends to be within our campuses, it tends to be within that environment. So when you have a law enforcement situation that arises on a campus and an SRO is involved, we have we have some tools to be able to, to really be able to offer kids a second chance. But I think, you know, the, the, the more important piece that happens there is that because we’re, we’re not from outside of the campus. It’s not like you called 911 and, and you got a patrol deputy who responded there, that we have the ability to, to remain connected to that situation. And I think the value that comes in there is that we have the ability to speak into the value of a kid, right? That, that this is a mistake, right. But it represents such a small fraction of the the span of your life and it represents such a small a blip on the radar of, of who you are. That this, this mistake is not you. What you do with this mistake moving forward is what defines you. That doesn’t represent who you are as a person.

Yeah. So I’m sure, you know, there are a lot of criticisms out there about SROs, studies that say SROs are, are more likely to punish students of color, studies that show SROs are ineffective in preventing or stopping school shootings. What, what’s your response to those? And do you deal with those in your sort of everyday interactions on campus?

FARMER: We, we do, we deal with some of those things that, you know, that make that allegation that, you know, we perpetuate the school to prison pipeline. And, you know, we, we have seen the reality is, we have seen, we’ve seen mistakes from the law enforcement side when, when someone came on on campus with bad intentions for their students. And, you know, we’re committed as a department that that’s not going to be us and we do that with, with properly selecting and then appropriately training our SROs.

But, you know, with the, the allegation of disparities and, and things of that nature, we have some metrics in place where we keep track of our statistics, where we track, you know, the law enforcement contacts, who the person is that we’ve, we’ve made that contact with, and then with the ultimate outcome of that investigation was, be it, be it arrest if the arrest is held in advance, things of that nature so that we have the ability to, to, to watch those trends and see if there is something that like that lines up with what, what someone might allege against us.

And the reality is we don’t see that because we, we also track positive experiences that we have with kids. We keep the same data metric for those interactions that we have. We, we’re just hanging out with the kids sitting down and, and talking with them about sports or talking with them about music or, or any of those things that we, we try to do the best that we can to keep track of that. And I, I think that that’s another effective measure to, to say, hey, look like you’re, you’re talking about something that represents a very small portion of what we actually do as a school resource officer. Here’s all the good stuff that we’ve tracked.

It’s really interesting. So how much is this in your mind then about creating relationships, trust, right? Between students and staff and officers?

FARMER: It’s, it’s paramount to the program, right? Our, our entire program is based around a trust, you know, like the trust that the community puts in to us. And you know, the reality is that these are, these are the the children of our parents and you know, our, our goal is to, to look after them as a parent would when they’re at school. But, with some of the allegations that come up about what SROs do or don’t do, you know, I think the positive interactions that we have, that’s the ultimate way to really, rather than tell somebody that we’re committed to this, to actually show them. And, you know, to your point, to be able to build that bridge between the community that we serve and, and us as the law enforcement that’s, that’s called to, to serve and protect them.

Let me ask you lastly, bill about this new program that the Department of Education recently announced, right, a contract with a company that schedules off-duty officers to schools, sort of like they’re scheduled for other off-duty kind of work that officers do. Sort of as a stop gap because lots of schools can’t hire full-time SROs, there’s a shortage, as we talked about. What do you make of a program like that?

Well, I think, you know, that the, the added benefit there is, is that you get that bolstered security contingency where you have, you know, visibility and you have access to law enforcement without any of the things that can kind of delay response. You know, the call to 911, the time it takes to dispatch the travel time to get there, that you have somebody who’s already there. So I think it, it does fill that gap, but if it’s not the same officer or deputy all of the time that’s there, you might be missing out on some of those relationship pieces.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.