Baltimore City Schools’ police force has a permanent chief. That’s after the Board of School Commissioners approved Chief Akil Hamm, who had been serving as acting chief since last March, Tuesday night.
“Chief Hamm understands the importance of building and strengthening positive relationships between police and our young people,” said Chief Executive Officer Sonja Santelises via a statement. “Throughout his career, he has gone above and beyond to connect with the young people he serves and protects. I am confident in his ability to continue to lead our officers.”
The statement noted that during this school year Hamm, who has been with the department for 17 years, has worked to achieve an 11 percent reduction in school based arrests. However, that number is difficult to verify as the department doesn’t seem to track those numbers on their website. According to city schools spokesperson Arezo Rahmani, some data can be found in a presentation made at the Operations Committee meeting this past March.
I spoke with Chief Hamm back in April, and he was candid as we covered a variety of topics related to the school police force. Hamm said he’d been working to correct problems that have plagued the city’s school police for a number of years. For one, he said, he’d made a major commitment to training officers about how to deal with young people and the issues they bring with them into the classroom.
“We looked at our training, that’s one of the things we really improved on,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of trauma, mental health, recognizing students with disabilities, things of that nature, youth mental health first aid so we’re really looking at ‘OK…is this a manifestation of this kid’s disabilities, why this child is acting like this?’”
He said has also worked to remedy the problems brought up in the Department of Justice’s report on Baltimore City Police, which also mentioned problems seen with school police.
In the report, the DOJ noted that school officers had been acting as an auxiliary Baltimore City Police force, working the streets, as well as working in schools. Hamm said that he didn’t feel that officials really took the time to speak with school police department officials, but they are still working to remedy those problems.
“Unfortunately, when they did their investigation nobody talked to us, so they never got our side of it. I know my predecessor was allowing my officers to work in the Eastern District, they were working overtime to supplement city police. The moment that I took over, I stopped that,” he said. “A lot of the things that I saw in the consent decree we already do, we write our police reports on Baltimore city police report forms and we turn them into city police. So whenever we stop somebody we use their stop books, we turn that information over to them so we have begun conversations but we’re not at the final stage of what we’re going to do for the consent decree.”
School police work to protect about 80,000 students and 10,000 staff members. Officers are permanently station in 37 schools. That’s a change that was implemented this year. Officers were pulled out of schools last year after state lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have allowed school officers to carry guns while they were stationed there. Now, those officers must secure their guns in an undisclosed location inside a safe when they are working inside the school—another change Hamm implemented.
“Dr. Santelises gave me permission to put officers back in the school because I felt like we needed to build positive relationships with kids and we couldn’t do that walking around, I’m just being honest with you,” he said. “You know, walking around the school outside the building and only coming in to put out a fire is not a good way of policing and what we try to do is just build trust, build quality relationships with students.
In Baltimore, there’s a long-running debate over whether police are even needed at all, with detractors pointing to school officers as a dangerous part of the school-to-prison pipeline. Baltimore is the only Maryland city that has one. Hamm disagrees and sees police in schools as important.
“Well in other jurisdictions the local police department, the municipal police department, serves as the SRO’s or school resource officers that are in schools so each jurisdiction has police that are in schools, we just happen to be the only one that has our own dedicated one,” Hamm said. “But it’s not just limited to Baltimore. If you look at most major urban cities, they have their own school police force: L.A. has a school police force, Miami has a school police force, Cleveland has its own school police force. I think we’re probably the 6th or 7th largest school police force in the country, but there’s several cities that have their own. In Texas, like 7 or 8 jurisdictions have their own school police. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I really think it’s a good thing because when you look at the work that we do and the people that we try to recruit, I think it works better for us.”