Criminal investigation launched after video shows school police officer slapping young man
A Baltimore City schools police officer is shown in a cellphone video slapping a young man Tuesday at REACH Partnership School in East Baltimore.
Liz Bowie and Kevin Rector
Law enforcement officials investigating video that appears to show officer slapping a young man.
Law enforcement officials launched a criminal investigation Wednesday after video surfaced of a Baltimore school police officer slapping and kicking a teenage youth while a second officer watches.
The incident occurred Tuesday afternoon on the steps outside a city high school. School Police Chief Marshall Goodwin and the two officers in the video were placed on administrative leave, and activists renewed calls for the Department of Justice to investigate the school police.
School officials have released few details of the incident, and there is disagreement about whether the youth is a student.
On Wednesday, acting School Police Chief Akil Hamm said the two officers responded to REACH Partnership School in Clifton Park after two "intruders" were reported inside. He said their presence was considered a threat.
The officers moved the two young men outside, Hamm said. He said school officials had determined that the two were not students by consulting with school administrators, who could not identify them. He said police wanted the community's help identifying them.
Attorney Lauren Geisser, who said she represents the 16-year-old youth and his parents, said he does attend the school. Geisser said the youth, whom she declined to identify because he is a minor, went to the hospital for injuries to his ribs and face.
Geisser said she, the youth and his parents went to the school Wednesday to speak to Principal James Gresham but were told he was in a meeting. Geisser said the parents wanted assurances that their child would be safe if he walked into the school.
"We waited for a significant period of time," Geisser said. "You would think the principal would want an open line of communication on this issue."
She said she was able to get a copy of the rolls that showed the youth's name on the list of students.
In a statement, Baltimore Schools CEO Gregory Thornton said, "I am completely appalled and disappointed by what is depicted in the video."
Schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster said school officials are investigating the case "vigorously."
Hamm said the school system is taking the incident "extremely seriously." He declined to identify the officers, citing the investigation and rules on personnel matters.
The Baltimore Police Department's Special Investigation Response Team will handle the criminal investigation at Hamm's request, police said. The team will work closely with the State's Attorney's Office. Police will also provide a liaison for the internal investigation that is be handled by the Baltimore City School Police.
"This is the right thing to do in a case like this," said Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis.
Foster said the officer who slapped and kicked the boy was part of a "multi-campus" assignment patrolling an area that includes several schools, and not assigned specifically to REACH.
The video was filmed by a friend of the youth, Geisser said, and posted on Facebook.
Karl Perry, the district's chief schools support officer, said he was "appalled" by the video as a man and an educator. He said most school police officers would never act in such a way.
"This type of behavior is not indicative of our schools police officers," Perry said. "This is unacceptable. It's not behavior that will ever be tolerated by any city employee."
The reaction to the video came quickly, with students and public officials calling for greater transparency and scrutiny of school police.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake described the scene in the video as "appalling," and said the officer's actions could further harm the relationship between the community and the police.
"Any time there is a law enforcement officer with that level of authority that seems to be abusing that authority, it impacts all of us across the country," she said. "It certainly is not helpful as we work to build bridges of trust to see that level of mistreatment."
Jenny Egan, a public defender who represents juveniles, said that while all the facts are not yet known, the video is "a vivid example of the criminalization of children and of treating misbehavior like crime."
She said it would be particularly unjust if young black students who come from high-crime neighborhoods in the city can't feel safe at school.
If there is "violence at the hands of people who are supposed to be there to protect you," she said, "then there is no place safe for our kids, and that is not right."
Karen Webber, director of the Education and Youth Development program at the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, called for better training of school police officers in de-escalation and conflict resolution.
City students and advocates have been calling for change for more than a year, after an altercation between a female school officer and three female students at a middle school was caught on film. The officer in that case pleaded guilty to second-degree assault and resigned.
Last month, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on the Department of Justice to expand its investigation of the Baltimore Police Department to include the city school police department. The two police departments operate independently.
"The video was distressing," said Monique Dixon, the fund's deputy director of policy. "It is an example of persistent police violence against young men of color."
Dixon, Webber and Egan called for greater oversight of the school police department, and said the district needs to develop guidelines for the officers.
Dixon said information the school system released to the Legal Defense Fund showed incidents in which school officers used batons and pepper spray against students. She said the use of force against students is not consistently reported.
The video is four seconds in length. It's unclear what occurred before the officer began slapping the boy.
"We are waiting for the department to conduct a full and complete investigation," said Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union.
When David Pontious saw the video, his first thought was "Not again."
Pontious, a 17-year-old senior at Baltimore City College High School and a core member of the student-led activist group City Bloc, said the school system has not been transparent about its efforts to improve police.
"Even though we've had a lot of meetings, a lot of input, a lot of discussions with the school system, we've still seen very little training that school police get, and very little accountability," he said.
He said the U.S. Department of Justice should be investigating school police, not just the city police.
City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the public safety committee, said that "no one's child should be treated like that."
Scott said he knows school police officers who mentor kids, coach sports teams and go out of their way to contribute to their school communities. "All of that stuff just gets forgotten" when reports surface of officers misbehaving, he said.
"It just goes to break down all the good will and all the good work that police officers, and schools police officers especially, do every day," Scott said. "That just adds to my level of disgust."
Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Erica L. Green and Colin Campbell contributed to this article.