In the midst of a scandal over Facebook posts made by current and former members of his city’s police department, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo pushed back against calls to defund the police by posting and later deleting a tweet that compared racist cops to teachers. “And when teachers are caught saying vile things,” the tweet read, “do we defund the schools, or fire the teachers responsible?”
Many who criticized the comment, like ABC 7 South Bay reporter Julian Glover, focused on the considerable difference in the power wielded by those who carry chalk and those who carry guns, but the mayor’s comments also unwittingly highlight an important difference between professional accountability in education and law enforcement.
California teachers are fired for unprofessional conduct like those Facebook posts every year, and some of them are stripped of their teaching credentials, thereby preventing them from teaching in any other public school in the state. Police officers can be fired — as San Jose Chief Eddie Garcia has said could happen in this case — but California is one of only five states that has no system for decertifying police officers and permanently taking away their badges.
As public service professions, education and law enforcement have a lot in common. Both are entrusted with authority over more vulnerable members of society, and each is overseen by a state commission –appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate — that sets and enforces the criteria for training and professional licensure. No one can become a public-school teacher or a police officer in California without a state certification.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) is an important safeguard for teachers and the public they serve. Each year the CTC receives about 6,000 reports of possible educator misconduct from a variety of sources: law enforcement, school districts, other state licensing agencies and members of the public. (Anyone can report misconduct at the commission’s homepage.)
Each report is reviewed and those that meet the CTC’s standards for potential discipline are investigated. If the case is substantiated, the commission can issue a private admonition or a public censure, or it can suspend or revoke the teacher’s credential, thus preventing them from working in any public school in California. At its meeting on April 22, one of six it generally holds each year, the CTC took disciplinary action against 202 teachers.
Law enforcement is another story. The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) oversees law enforcement selection and training throughout the state, and it issues professional certificates necessary to exercise police powers. Once awarded, though, the state has no mechanism to revoke those certificates or rescind the powers they convey.
This was not always the case. POST could revoke police certificates until 2003 when Senate Bill 221 was passed without legislative debate and signed by Gov. Gray Davis. Since then California has been one of only five states without a process for decertifying law enforcement officials.
There are, of course, other ways to deal with misconduct by both teachers and police officers. The criminal justice system handles the most egregious misconduct, but while a criminal conviction is almost always automatic cause to revoke a teacher’s credential, a 2019 investigative report from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley and the Bay Area News Group found that scores of police officers, including some in Silicon Valley, continue to work in law enforcement despite their criminal convictions.
Teachers and police officers can also be fired for violating the professional standards of their local communities, but dismissal from one school district or department is no guarantee someone will not return to a classroom or a beat. With statewide shortages in both professions, employers are increasingly willing to “take a chance” on someone who “wasn’t a fit” with another employer.
Reforming POST and restoring its power to discipline and decertify officers will not, by itself, end the current crisis of police brutality any more than the CTC has prevented all abhorrent behavior by teachers. It would, however, give California citizens as much power over those who use lethal force as they currently have over those who give lunch detention.
Patrick Bernhardt is president of the San José Teachers Association.