New law increases school police powers, critics say

Published: Tuesday, Jul. 24, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

A new law that aims to address confusion over the authority of school district police departments has come under fire from some critics who say lawmakers have quietly increased school police powers under the guise of "cleanup language."

The law, which goes into effect in January, removes wording in the state Education Code that used to say that school police departments are not vested with general policing powers. That language caused confusion among the public because the Penal Code says just the opposite – that school officers are authorized to do general policing.

The conflicting language created friction in Sacramento last year after accusations surfaced that the Twin Rivers Unified School District Police Department overstepped its authority by actively policing areas away from school campuses.

"I think this is a bad law," said former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness. "Twin Rivers is the best example of why this didn't need to happen."

McGinness said the law could create issues when multiple policing agencies share jurisdiction over the same area.

Jesus Montana, a sergeant with the San Diego Unified School District Police Department, disagreed, saying the new law does not expand police powers, but rather clarifies language that was previously confusing.

Montana represents specialized police departments, such as school districts, for the San Diego chapter of the Police Officers Research Association of California. Earlier this year, Montana was a member of the Twin Rivers Law Enforcement Professional Panel that reviewed complaints about excessive car tows and other allegations of wrongdoing within the Twin Rivers Police Department.

Montana said the bill was in the works before Twin Rivers' police force began making headlines. He lobbied Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, to carry the bill – AB 2368 – and it sailed through the Legislature without a single "no" vote.

"This went through the normal vetting process," said Maria Lopez, a spokeswoman for Block's office. "School district officers maintain the same authority under current law."

Twin Rivers Unified leaders said they learned about the law days after it was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last week.

"How did this stay so quiet considering this is a community that will be affected by this?" asked Daniel Miranda, an Elverta resident on the Twin Rivers Police Services and Safety Advisory Committee, which was created in response to community concerns about the district's police force.

Scrutiny of the Twin Rivers force began after a district police officer was shot during a traffic stop near Grant High School in October. The suspect, Tyrone Smith, 32, lost consciousness in the back of a Sacramento city police patrol car and later died of undetermined causes.

Smith's death prompted a community backlash about why the school police force was making traffic stops on a Saturday, when school was not in session. Community members said their complaints of excessive traffic stops and car tows that had occurred prior to the shooting had largely been ignored.

The Sacramento Police Department is currently investigating other allegations of misconduct within the department and among the school district's leaders.

Last month, a Twin Rivers officer, Branche Smith, was charged with four misdemeanor counts of assaulting detainees while on duty. About a week later, the Sacramento County grand jury released a report alleging widespread corruption in the Twin Rivers district and its police force, dating back several years.

The grand jury report found, among other things, that Twin Rivers officers were more interested in policing the community instead of recognizing that their "primary responsibility is the protection of the students, staff and facilities of the Twin Rivers Unified School District."

The panel cited confusion among officers, school district leaders and the community about whether school police officers are "vested with general police powers."

The state's Education Code previously said: "It is the intention of the Legislature in enacting this section that a school District police or security department is supplemental to city and county law enforcement agencies and is not vested with general police powers."

Others, however, cited the Penal Code as giving Twin Rivers officers general policing powers.

The new law changes the Education Code to say only a school district security department is supplementary to city and county law enforcement agencies and not vested with general police powers. That line no longer applies to school police departments, such as the Twin Rivers force.

The law does, however, say the mission of school police departments is to "ensure the safety of school district personnel and pupils, and the security of the real and personal property of the school district."

"I'm sorry to hear they did that," said Don Prange Sr., who was the grand jury foreman during the investigation into Twin Rivers Unified. "I never heard about this. You would think there would be some discussion about this."

Vince Matranga, retired chief of security for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said he used to point to the Education Code language when the city school district had a police force.

"I used it as an example of why we don't exercise general police powers," Matranga said. "Supervisors, school boards and superintendents may see problems on the horizon with this change to the Ed Code."

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