MPD Chief’s proposed officers around high schools reignites debate around SROs

MADISON, Wis.– Police Chief Shon Barnes’ recent budget proposal for neighborhood police officers, whether or not he intends it, has reignited the debate around having officers near Madison schools and dealing with students. But the group behind getting them out of schools in the first place says that’s a step in the wrong direction.

Chief Shon Barnes thinks four neighborhood police officers — one patrolling the neighborhood around East, West, Memorial and LaFollette high schools — would bring community policing activities to school zones.

“It’s best to have someone that’s not obligated to the other things that police officers may be called to,” the chief said, “so having the support for community members, having the support for neighborhoods, for businesses in and around the high schools and most importantly to have a dedicated resource to help solve issues, manage issues.”

The chief’s proposal doesn’t only focus on the schools.  A Madison police spokesperson says the officers would patrol entire neighborhoods around the schools, checking in with businesses and people who live in the area daily.

Barnes feels that, as a whole, has been lacking.

“This is not about the SRO program, everyone wants to make it about the SRO program, this is a neighborhood officer program,” he said.

But to Bianca Gomez, it’s just “The reinstatement of the SRO — which it is, right?”

“It’s an SRO program by another name it’s not the solution to concerns around young people,” she said.

Gomez works with Freedom Inc. in Madison. “Young people talked about how traumatizing it was to have police in schools.”

They were behind the push to have MMSD remove school resource officers in 2020.

RELATED: MMSD Board votes unanimously to end contract with MPD, remove police from schools

“You should not need a relationship with a police officer to avoid being criminalized that does not help keep young people safe and that does not protect our communities,” she said.

But Barnes points to other safety issues including increased school shootings nationwide. “Just because it may not be popular doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”

Safety outside schools was also a big concern last school year. Back in 2021, there were numerous fights outside East High School in particular, which left both officers and students hurt.

RELATED: ‘The school needs help’: MMSD plans district-wide analysis to study uptick in violence following fights at East High School

“There’s probably not a week that has gone by that someone doesn’t talk to me, call me in a coffee shop, that are worried about ‘hey what’s our plan for school safety,’ ‘what’s our plan for the neighborhoods’,” Barnes said.

“I would say, what makes you feel safe?” Gomez said.

According to Gomez and Freedom Inc., more investment in youth engagement, housing, food distribution and more is the key to safety. “We’ve seen a divestment of those things in our community while the police budget continues to increase.”

“When we talk to our young people in this community, when we talk to our parents in this community, when we talk to business owners in this community, they often outline that other community helps them feel safe'” Gomez said.

MMSD released a statement to News 3 Now on the proposal that reads:

“MMSD continues to prioritize the safety and security of our schools, and values our collaboration with the City of Madison Police Department (MPD). During the 2021-22 school year, the majority of student involved altercations on our campuses originated from conflicts starting in the community and later continuing when back on school property. We know how intervention can provide the best outcomes for all students, and we support efforts by MPD, and other community partners, to ensure safety and security continues for our students when not on school grounds.”