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To Serve and Protect? L.A. School Police Officer Faked Shooting

Officer Jeff Stenroos' lie that a gunman shot him in the chest spotlights the need to reconsider the role of school police.

Los Angeles Unified School District police officer Jeff Stenroos must have missed the "to serve and protect" memo. At a time when there are real worries about school violence, the last thing districts need is for an officer to fake a shooting. But that's exactly what Stenroos allegedly decided to do on January 19 when he claimed a gunman shot him in the chest after he interrupted criminal activity outside El Camino High School. The incident raises significant questions about the department patrolling the second largest school district in the United States.

Stenroos was arrested Thursday night on a felony charge of filing a false police report, he's been fired, and now the Los Angeles City Council has filed a lawsuit against him for the costs of what became one of the largest manhunts in recent city history.

The faked shooting at El Camino came just one day after a very real shooting at Gardena High School on the other side of town. Questions about school safety were front and center for district officials after the Gardena incident, and schools were on high alert for any copycat behavior. When Stenroos said he'd been shot outside El Camino High, Los Angeles went into complete panic mode.

Nine schools in the city's San Fernando Valley were on lockdown for almost six hours. More than 9,000 students couldn't leave their classrooms for any reason, not even to use the bathroom. Parents were freaking out because rumors were flying, and if they showed up at their kid's school, they couldn't pick them up.

Business and traffic was also disrupted as a seven square mile area around the shooting was shut down. More than 350 officers from the LAPD, FBI, California Highway Patrol, and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department searched for a man that Stenroos described as a white male in his 40s with long brown hair wearing jeans and a plaid shirt. Those officers never found that suspect because he simply didn't exist.

So what actually happened the morning Stenroos claimed he was shot outside El Camino? According to a confidential law enforcement official, Stenroos mishandled his gun and accidentally shot himself in the chest. His bulletproof vest saved his life, but why he chose to say an assailant shot him instead of owning up to his mistake is not yet clear.

Stenroos had been on the LAUSD police force for eight years, and although the school police go through an academy, they are not LAPD officers. Critics say the school police department is a "carbon copy of the pre-reform LAPD, complete with an aggressive “SWAT team,” a code of silence about bad cops, an all-but-unsupervised motorcycle unit, even LAPD-look-alike police cars." And, like the LAPD, officers have the power to arrest both students and adults.

When a fight breaks out on campus, teachers and students are undeniably grateful for officers' presence. On the other hand, its not unheard of for students, teachers, and other school staff to say that the school police treat students as suspects, harass kids in the hallways and racially profile. That's not the kind of environment a school needs when teachers need to seriously inspire kids around achievement goals.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines issued an apology for, "the hoax that was perpetrated by a rogue officer of the Los Angeles School Police." But with the district dealing with massive budget cuts and fights over teacher tenure and evaluations, reforming the school police hasn't exactly been a top priority.

Stenroos may indeed just be the bad apple that Cortines characterizes him as. Whatever the reason he decided to fake the shooting, he's about to experience a living hell as the wrath of angry parents, school officials, law enforcement and city officials comes down, deservedly, on his head.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Thomas Hawk

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