'A holding place for bad cops?' Police brutality, misconduct and school resource officers

The Edmonton Public School board has decided to temporarily suspend the school resource officer (SRO) program, which places armed police officers in schools,  while it is reviewed.

Earlier this summer, a motion to suspend the program failed by one vote. While debating that motion trustee Cheryl Johner made racist remarks about refugees and Johner, who had voted against suspending the program, resigned. When the board reconvened and held a second vote on whether to suspend the program while it was under review, Ken Gibson, a trustee who had been absent from the first vote, delayed a vote on the suspension until September. 

Until now the SRO program had not been reviewed since its creation in 1979. There is precious little we know about when it comes to the SRO program. There are no metrics, no regular reports, no standards of success or failure that are reported to the school boards. 

During the school board hearings, more than sixty public speakers, many of them former or current students, spoke out about their negative interactions with SROs. The volume of allegations of abuse and misconduct, both during the hearing and in the public discourse around it, was staggering.

Progress Alberta followed up to research these allegations after the hearing, and what we found was disturbing. Rather than serving to protect students, the SRO program has become “a holding place for bad cops,” exposing our kids to some of the worst and most brutal behavior of the Edmonton Police Service. 

The sweatbox incident 

Const. Hannas, left, and Const. Sauter, right, are pictured in the 2010-2011 St. Joseph High School yearbook.

Very few metrics are reported to the public about the SRO program, but its officers initiate thousands of police actions each year, ranging from minor fines to major jail times. Those police actions are initiated by officers by SROs like Constables Lael Sauter and Patrick Hannas.

In May of 2005 Const. Lael Sauter and Const. Patrick Hannas detained nine intoxicated unhoused Indigenous people in a hot police van with only six seats in the Whye Avenue area for several hours before dumping them in a parking lot at the north edge of town in the so-called sweatbox case. It received a lot of media attention and in 2010 the officers were eventually found guilty of insubordination and discreditable conduct under the Police Act

Const. Patrick Hannas was suspended for 50 hours without pay for the Police Act violations. Const. Lael Sauter was given a 40-hour suspension without pay. The two officers also forfeited a combined 60 hours of overtime.

However this incident did not affect their ability to be employed as school resource officers. 

Yearbooks confirm that Const. Sauter was an SRO at Victoria High School between 2006 and 2009 and then at SRO at St. Joseph High School between 2009 and 2012. He was under investigation for the sweatbox incident for several years after 2005 and eventually found guilty in 2010. 

Simone Medina Polo was a student at St. Joseph High School. She was involved in student governance and regularly Interacted with Sauter. Sauter’s involvement in “police brutality, excessive force and unlawful behavior,” as Medina Polo describes it, only became known after Sauter left the school. 

A friend of Simone’s told her about a troubling interaction they had with the SRO. Sauter had arrested one of the parents of Simone’s friend at school. Sauter recognized the student, likely from court, and made a point to tell them that he was keeping an eye on them.

“As someone who was involved in student government I felt compromised because I was part of normalizing his presence,” said Polo. When it comes to whether schools should know about the disciplinary records of the SROs in their schools Polo said, “Schools, teachers and students should certainly know. That’s to put it mildly.”

In 2014 Sauter was involved in the death of Trevor Proudman, a disabled man who died in the back of Sauter’s police van after he was restrained and placed there by Sauter and his partner. 

Sauter eventually apologized to Proudman’s family in court and said that he ‘learned an important lesson.’ After that death the Edmonton Police brought in a new policy that no longer allowed people to be left alone in the back of a police van. 

Yearbooks also confirm that Const. Hannas was also an SRO at Holy Trinity High School between 2008 and 2010 and at Austin O’Brien High School from 2009 to 2011. 

In 2006 Hannas faced an internal investigation for impersonating another police officer. He faced two counts of deceit, one for insubordination and one for breach of confidence. He received a reprimand and was suspended for 35 hours without pay. In that incident Hannas impersonated another cop and called up a man who owed his father money in order to intimidate him. 

Const. Hannas is pictured in the 2009-2010 Holy Trinity High School yearbook. 

Just a month prior to the sweatbox incident in April of 2005 Rob Houle was taken on his own, similar tour. Rob’s brother was assaulted and pepper sprayed by Edmonton police outside of a bar and both were handcuffed and put in the back of a police van. They were driven around for more than an hour with the van frequently braking hard and taking fast, tight turns. 

As recounted in the CBC piece on this story Houle's head snapped back, hitting the wall. He fell face-first onto the floor beside his brother. 

"I can't remember whether or not I lost consciousness ... but I remember the pain," Houle said to the CBC.

Houle has strong opinions on the SRO program and of these officers continuing to be SROs after being found guilty of discreditable conduct. 

“It speaks to the purpose of what the SRO program is. What it’s designed for. Is it a holding place for bad cops? That’s what it looks like in this case,” says Houle. 

“After getting caught and convicted of discreditable conduct or whatever they get shuffled into this SRO program, where they can lay low in schools and continue to police black and brown faces in schools, and then go on to climb the ranks.”

Houle doesn’t think the SRO program should continue. 

“The cons highly outweigh the pros, especially for black and brown students. It makes it a much less welcoming learning environment. If the schools have no say in which cops are getting placed in there then you never know what you’re going to get.” 

Other SRO incidents

Const. Hannas’ and Sauter’s record are not an outlier. We found many examples of officers serving as SROs despite being involved in brutality or misconduct.

Victoria Potts sued Const. Dan Williams in civil court in 2005 and won a $7,000 award after receiving a kick to the face during her arrest in 1998. Court of Queen's Bench Justice Sterling Sanderman termed the kick "a deliberate act delivered as an angry response" rather than self- defence after Potts had bitten Williams. 

Williams was an SRO at St. Joseph High School at the time. According to an Edmonton Journal report back in 2001 Const. Dan Williams was one of a handful of officers across Canada to receive a National Youth Justice Policing Award for his efforts to keep at-risk youth away from crime and foster law-abiding values.

Potts told the judge that Williams and another officer kicked her repeatedly on either side and directed racial slurs and epithets towards her as she lay on the ground. The judge did not believe her. 

Williams was never investigated or disciplined by the EPS for kicking Potts in the face because she never filed a complaint and only sought remedy through the civil courts. We don’t know how long before or other locations where Williams was an SRO.

Const. Terry Mishio was an SRO at Eastglen High School when he was involved in an altercation outside of the school. The teenager he charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer was eventually acquitted after a judge ruled the officer took offence at the young man's attitude and engaged in a personal fight with him.

Provincial Court Judge Michael Stevens-Guille said Const. Terry Mishio approached Cory Royer, 19, and stepped up to him "nose to nose, chin to chin." After a push by Royer that was deemed reactive and non-violent by the judge “it all becomes personal.”

"He's going to take this guy down," said Judge Stevens-Guille.

Court heard Mishio pepper-sprayed Royer, tried a head stun, put the teen in a prohibited choke hold, then pepper- sprayed him again. The officer then pushed the teen to the ground and only stopped after Royer's friend kicked Mishio in the head.

There is no record or reporting of any discipline for Mishio. The case became a flashpoint when former police Chief Mike Boyd used the case to illustrate what he said was a growing trend of citizens attacking police officers. We also don’t know how long Mishio continued to be an SRO after this incident. 

Royer eventually sued former chief Boyd for $150,000 for defamation after he was called a hoodlum. Mishio’s colleague was also found guilty of assaulting the young man who kicked Const. Mishio in the head. Violating privacy law, Mishio ran three separate inquiries on Royer’s license plates the day Royer was acquitted of resisting arrest and assaulting Const. Mishio. 

Staff Sgt. Jamie Ewatski was found guilty of trespassing and assault and received a conditional discharge from the police in 2008. He eventually beat the case on appeal but he left the EPS in 2009. Ewatski and a team of officers entered a house without a warrant and then punched, pepper sprayed and otherwise assaulted the man who lived there after he demanded to see a warrant.

According to Ewatski’s defence lawyer Ewatski had worked for years as a school resource officer in an Edmonton school though the school is not named. This fact was used to try and argue for a lighter sentence. This news report places him at Fraser Elementary School

And finally new reporting from Is This For Real, a podcast that explores policing issues in Edmonton, includes a disturbing second-hand report of a police officer having a non-consensual relationship with a student and then that SRO leaving the school.

Just as with police brutality against the general public, brutality by police in schools appears to fall along racial lines, particularly against Black and Indigenous students.

"SROs should not be in schools, period. Since the SRO program lacks oversight and these cops are ending up in schools and being the very first cops that Black and Brown students interact with and then they profile students and reinforce the school to prison pipeline, then just get rid of the program.” said Shima Robinson, core member of Black Lives Matter Edmonton.

“I know I’ve always been uncomfortable with having SROs in school when I was in school. I always questioned why they were there. As an immigrant that was never anything I never experienced. Seeing a gun on the waist of an officer was just very odd when they were surrounded by a bunch of kids,” said Selassie Drah, another core member of Black Lives Matter Edmonton. 

Drah was a student at St. Joseph while Constable Sauter was an SRO there, but was not aware of the officer’s history at the time. Despite the high profile of the sweatbox incident, students were never warned. 

And as the movement to defund the police grows in power and prominence we know that the Edmonton Police Service received $2.1 million in revenue from the Edmonton Public School Board, Edmonton Catholic School District and Edmonton Islamic Academy in the 2018-2019 school year.  This number is higher than previously reported and comes from a freedom of information request to the EPS

What the police and the school boards have to say

When we asked the institutions involved whether they knew about the fact that there were SROs who had been involved with police brutality and misconduct incidents, each party tried to deflect the blame.

“School Resource Officers (SROs) are employees of the Edmonton Police Service and are not hired by Edmonton Catholic Schools. All SRO related questions such as those you have asked below need to be forwarded to the Edmonton Police Service for their response,” said Lori Nagy with the Edmonton Catholic School District. 

The Edmonton Public School Board repeated the line about SROs being employees of EPS and were also ignorant of their SRO’s assignments over time, how they were hired and any disciplinary records they may have. 

“Edmonton Public Schools is often invited to participate in the panel interview to provide a perspective on whether an SRO would be a fit in a school, but it is Edmonton Police Services’ ultimate decision about who they hire and where they are placed. It does not appear Edmonton Public Schools has any records in relation to your questions around whether we were aware of situations that transpired prior to officers becoming SROs,” said Carrie Rosa the acting director of communications with Edmonton Public Schools.

The Edmonton Police responded to our questions with this statement. 

“All officers applying for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program are vetted prior to their selection.  Officers’ employment records are reviewed to determine their suitability for the role and any applicants with any conflicts of interest or open complaint investigations are not selected. 

Should the EPS Professional Standard Branch receive a complaint about an active SRO, their supervisors are immediately notified, and the nature of the complaint is assessed. If the complaint presents a safety concern for the staff/students at the school or presents any conflict of interest with their role, the staff relations department of the associated school board is immediately notified,” said Carolin Maron, a communication advisor with the EPS.  

No student should have to go school with an SRO with a history of police brutality or misconduct. Yet throughout our research we found that school boards, administrators, and teachers often knew nothing about the records of the armed police in their hallways and classrooms.

There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that the school resource officer program brings students into contact with brutal, bad cops. Whether this will be enough to convince trustees who voted against suspending the program, like Gibson, remains to be seen once the review is completed.

If you have any tips or information about SROs involved in police brutality and misconduct please contact us confidentially at [email protected]. We look forward to seeing the results of the review of the SRO program in 2021. 

An earlier version of this story referred to a public school board vote set to occur on September 8, 2020, regarding the possible suspension of the SRO program. After receiving hundreds of letters from concerned citizens, EPSB accelerated this decision, announcing on September 4 that the program would be suspended until the completion of a thorough review.