Leslie Ramirez was appointed Los Angeles Unified School District’s interim police chief. Despite the impact of the budget cuts and public scrutiny, Ramirez said she feels optimistic that she can create a positive outcome.
“It felt great that they had the confidence in me at this time, but you know, it is a challenging time,” Ramirez said in an interview with LA Downtown News. “There are mixed feelings, but I am still very honored to have been selected.”
In late June, LA’s Board of Education bowed to pressure from protesters and voted to cut $25 million from the school’s police department budget and invest in counselors, safety aides and psychiatric social workers, prioritizing underprivileged schools with the highest population of Black students.
School police will be taken off campus and out of uniform until the superintendent task force comes back with its recommendations, the adopted measure states. What exactly this will look like is uncertain, Ramirez said.
“The work is ahead,” she said. “Obviously there were some changes to our budget, which, you know, are no secret to anyone, and also some calls for how we operate overall as a department.”
Protesters’ demands for police divestment have spread to more specific areas of public safety, like LAUSD’s police department, where many say they contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalize students for minor offenses.
Black students have been targeted by school police at disproportionate rates, Black Lives Matter LA claimed during protests. Despite Black students only making up less than 9% of LAUSD’s population, they account for 25% of arrests, diversions and citations, according to a 2018 analysis from UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project.
Ramirez acknowledges this is an issue that needs to be confronted and said the school’s police are looking at ways to address that. She said there are increased restorative justice practices and the department is looking at other ways to offer better levels of prevention before arresting students.
Ramirez replaced now-former Chief Todd Chamberlain, who resigned almost immediately after the new changes were adopted by the school board. He warned in the school board Zoom meeting that if the changes were adopted, only “bare minimum service” could be offered.
Two days after the changes were adopted, LAUSD announced that Ramirez would be the school’s police interim chief, without acknowledging Chamberlain’s resignation. Ramirez said she worked with Chamberlain for only a brief period of time but respects his decisions on why he resigned.
“I know that (Chamberlain) came with the best intentions to move this department forward into a 21st century policing agency, and unfortunately, due to the circumstances, that did not happen,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’re just in a different time right now and we’re moving in a different direction.”
Their “operational posture” is different, Ramirez said, and she feels she will be able to lead the police despite the changes and public scrutiny. Her understanding of the schools as an alumnus and graduate as well as her 22 years of experience of policing LAUSD schools is her greatest strength, she said, and that experience will help her lead the school’s police through the changes effectively.
“Without a doubt, a cut of this magnitude will affect our operation, and some of it may be unfortunate, but I am optimistic that we are going to look at the circumstances and try to bring out the best possible outcome,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez grew up in Westside LA, starting her education at Shenandoah Elementary School and graduating from Hamilton High School. After college and a few travel years, Ramirez said she learned about school police and their mission and decided it would be the career path for her.
“I can’t say during my formative years that I said I wanted to be a police officer, but that definitely sparked once I was introduced to school police and learned more about what they do,” Ramirez said.
School policing is a team effort, Ramirez said, explaining how creating good relationships with students, staff, parent groups and the extended community is key to preventing a lot of things from happening before they occur. Knowing the climate of what’s going on in and out of school allows police to have more preventative measures in place, she said.
“We need to look at how we can help families and help students through traumatic events and through incidents that occur,” Ramirez said. “That’s where our focus is.”
Despite students not being on campus, Ramirez said the school’s police department will continue being part of a “grab-and-go” food distribution service as well as patrolling their schools 24/7 to prevent crimes like vandalism and breaking and entering. Ramirez said she is confident that schools will go back to a normal posture soon and they want to be in a good position for when that point comes.
“We’re still here,” Ramirez said. “We’re still going to be focused on student safety. We just have to find a new way to make that happen now.”