Detroit Public Schools is the only district in the state with its own police department. Amid ongoing racial injustice protests, the police department is under scrutiny. (Shutterstock)

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is the largest public school district in Michigan. DPSCD, which predominantly serves Black and Brown students, is the only public district in the state with its own police department.

Most school districts that have police presence contract with local departments. DPSCD does not — even though the Detroit Police Department and the DPSCD Police Department sometimes work together. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti hired Ralph Godbee two years ago to oversee the district’s police force to implement what he says is a ‘Whole Child’ approach to its safety and security measures. 

As protesters continue to march the streets of Detroit calling to defund the police; end police brutality, racial injustice and a host of socioeconomic issues, community members have also demanded that DPSCD eliminate its police department. They asked the district to hire more guidance counselors and make building upgrades, according to a Chalkbeat report. 

“The municipal environment is distinctly different than a school-based environment,” Chief Godbee said. “It is not enforcement-centric. It’s security-centric from a standpoint of making sure that what is outside of the school does not disrupt the learning environment.”

Following, DPSCD held a protest of their own against racism and inequality earlier this summer. Its School Board approved a declaration stating the district is antiracist.

Vitti says the district’s police department has been moving in a more progressive direction since Chief Ralph Godbee was hired in 2018. Godbee is retiring this year and the district is searching for a new Chief of Police. 

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“The municipal environment is distinctly different than a school-based environment,” Godbee said. “It is not enforcement-centric. It’s security-centric from a standpoint of making sure that what is outside of the school does not disrupt the learning environment.”

The district’s police department says it is using more restorative practices and community policing, or conflict mediation and engaging the community, rather than enforcement practices, even though it has the authority to enforce the law.

While under state emergency management in 2011, Detroit Public Schools broke ground on a $5.6 million Command Center to improve district safety. Original plans for the 23,000-square-foot center called for a canine unit, holding cells and a security system, according to a Detroit Free Press article at the time.

Taking care of OUR babies and being a mentor to them; not an enforcer is a core value of our police department. #ExpectRespect #StudentsRiseWeAllRise #Service #ProtectAndServe #DPSCDProud #CarletonElementarySchool pic.twitter.com/4VRpP6DqCm

— Ralph Godbee (@ChiefGodbee) January 7, 2020

Now, the command center is predominantly used for administrative work like criminal background checks, fingerprinting, ID processing, and surveillance of over 100 district buildings. According to Godbee, there is one holding cell and the Center is the hub for the department’s communications dispatch.

BridgeDetroit requested a tour of the Command Center but was told by DPSCD officials that wasn’t possible due to the district’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Changes made under Godbee and Vitti’s direction:

  • Decreased the police budget by $1 million
  • Eliminated militarized weapons
  • Reduced the number of contract security guards with the goal of hiring  a smaller contingent of in-house security by 2022-23 school year
  • In the process of eliminating a second-tier officer role
  • Reinstituted state-required Police Oversight Committee

“People say I’m trying to get rid of the police department and I’m not,” Godbee said. “But I do have a profound responsibility as a Black man to [acknowledge] the institutional, systemic racism that is getting to where a lot of the systems that we reinforce and the effect that it has on the beliefs of a young person.”

The chief said two military vehicles were donated to the district a few years ago, but he was told to get rid of them upon his hiring because “we’re not a military entity.” They were given to another police entity.

“It sent the wrong message so I don’t know why they were accepted in the first place,” he said.

The district does have several regular police vehicles including Ford Tauruses, Crown Victorias, and Escapes. 

Godbee said the community should trust Vitti’s direction and that the district will not contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.

However, Erin Keith, staff attorney at Detroit Justice Center and who previously worked in youth empowerment at Georgetown Youth Center in Washington, said the school-to-prison pipeline issue is still “extremely prevalent.”

“We’re still seeing Black youth propelled into the justice system from school resource officers at urban districts at a disproportionate rate than their white counterparts,” she said. 

Keith said DJC has created a curriculum, by the request of teachers at schools like Detroit Lions Academy, to help students understand their rights if they are confronted by police. 

“That’s an indicator of how much work is needed,” she said.

Keith also said DPSCD has shown interest in restorative justice practices, which require school leadership to consider how to address student needs rather than enforcing punishments. Keith said restorative justice encourages officers to consider what will make the student whole and turn the wrong into a right.

This often means restoring and repairing the relationships between students and being a resource for students who may have other things going on in their lives.

 Godbee said his officers are trained in restorative justice practices, and that his department would be more suited to respond to issues through mediation than DPD. 

“I think Vitti has been intentional about trying to implement those programs,” Keith said. 

Keith also said that police don’t need to diffuse every situation. She encourages any school district that employs police officers to compare their security budget with funding for other school resources like counselors, for mental health support that she says many Black students don’t traditionally have access to until they become a part of the justice system. 

Ayinde Perry said he doesn’t see the DPSCD police officers often. The eighth-grader at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy said he’s more likely to be greeted by security officers at his school when he walks through metal detectors and has the contents of his backpack checked daily. 

“I don’t think we should have to do that because that’s like saying that they think we could bring something like a gun to school, which we possibly can, but I don’t want them to think that way,” Perry said. 

Godbee said he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and that he sees a “law enforcement culture issue, rather than a DPSCDPD issue.”

“I feel a profound sense of responsibility not to exacerbate those issues, but to help young people understand that their demand for better policing, their demand for more equitable policing with respect is not going to fall on deaf ears,” Godbee said.

DPSCD students shouldn’t see police officers patrolling the hallways or in their classrooms daily. There aren’t enough officers.

Godbee’s budget allows up to almost 40 fully-sworn Michigan Commission On Law Enforcement (MCOLE) certified officers, over a dozen Public Act 330 Officers (who have jurisdiction only on school property), and just over 90 contract security guards through the company Securitas.The contract security guards predominantly secure the district’s real estate footprint. When asked which buildings DPSCD police officers patrol most frequently, Godbee said he would not disclose deployment information. No new Public Act 330 Officers will be hired as the district has eliminated the position. 

As Godbee slowly reduces the number of officers and contract security guards within the district, he said part of the department’s role is to build positive relationships with students.

Even though the district’s protest was not in support of defunding the police, Godbee told BridgeDetroit that he supports investing in and incorporating more counselors in schools. However, he said the infrastructure and support needed to make those changes are “not fully developed,” which is why he thinks the district still needs its own police department.

“In a perfect world, if we do our job correctly, that should eliminate the need for police,” he said.

Since fall 2016 to June of this year DPSCD has increased school counselors from 91 to 151 and increased the number of social workers from 86 to 133.

Godbee, former chief of the Detroit Police Department, said the district’s police department and municipal policing are distinctly different, even though the officers come from the same certified training programs and some of the district’s officers previously worked for DPD.

The school district and DPD even use the same communications and will call on the city’s department if needed. That’s likely in the event of an active shooter or criminal activity happening near school property.

DPSCD is more concerned about the number of community engagements an officer has performed than how many tickets they’ve written that month, according to Godbee. The DPSCD chief said he’s more concerned with the qualitative measures the district can advance rather than the quantitative.

“If you have a thirst for high activity, chasing felons and car chases, this is not the job for you,” he said. “We want to deemphasize those things, purposefully.” 

Orlando Bailey contributed to this story.

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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2 Comments

  1. I used to work for DPS in a security role. Everyone who has a problem with police presence at the schools, should actually spend a week in some of these schools. Because of single Parenthood and the influence of social media and the entertainment industry, students feel like rules don’t apply to them. The language that the students use and the lack of respect and fear the students have, go a long way to how they act when they leave high school. And majority of the administration of these schools really don’t care about safety of the schools. I have personally taken tasers and drugs off students just for them to be let go. I truly wish they would interview the people who work there and not the political figures.

  2. Hey! My former colleague just moved to New York City last month with his family, and he noticed a couple of days ago that his daughter’s elementary school is equipped with almost a dozen of police officers. In my opinion, he should reach out to an expert to figure out how to address this matter appropriately in the near future without jeopardizing anyone’s safety. You did a decent job highlighting that having law enforcement personnel could actually maintain the order within a school population without making teachers being too involved in the process.

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