Trending Topics

‘Those are my kids': Retired officer dismissed from Seattle school in 2020 says SROs are still necessary

"[The SRO program] was a great program, and they never should have gotten rid of it,” Bennie Radford said. “All ‘defund the police’ did is hurt that city”


AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

By Danny Westneat
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE— Bennie Radford lives in Florida these days. It’s 3,000 miles and a lifetime away from pre-pandemic Seattle.

But in the days since yet another shooting this spring at Seattle’s Garfield High School, Radford hasn’t been able to think of much else.

“My stomach is wrenching right now,” he said when I got him on the phone Tuesday, in Apollo Beach, Fla. “I never should have left. Those are my kids — that was my school.”

From 2008 to 2019, Radford was Garfield’s cop. “Officer Bennie,” the kids called him. He stood sentry at the front door, wandered the grounds during lunch periods and, every so often, was called on to enforce the peace.

For example, Radford once chased down and arrested a 25-year-old leader of the Deuce 8 street gang, in a school hallway. Prosecutors alleged the gang leader was using the high school as a recruiting ground for fresh members.

“I was mostly on guard for folks coming around Garfield who didn’t belong,” Radford said Tuesday. “I wasn’t arresting the students.”

But the Seattle School Board canceled the job in 2020 during the backlash against policing after George Floyd’s murder. The board indefinitely shelved school police arrangements at Garfield and four other Seattle schools.

In a resolution, the board said it was “abandoning notions of policing and pathology,” and removing the officers as a show of how the school district “supports defunding police.”

At the time, school buildings were empty due to the pandemic, and would be for nearly another year. Still, some Garfield parents objected. The district wasn’t offering any plan to replace officers like Radford with anything else.

“If the politically correct thing to do is cancel them, then we need a plan before students go back to campus, to keep them safe,” said Liz Cortez, at the time the mother of a Garfield junior, in prophetic testimony to the board in June 2020.

Added Kayla Epting, another Garfield parent: “I feel the decision to remove the school resource officers is being made in a knee-jerk fashion.”

A few minutes later, the School Board adopted it unanimously.

At Garfield on Tuesday, as students filed past tearful, clapping lines of parents for the first day back since last Thursday’s deadly shooting, a sign on the steps asked the question that’s now top of mind: “Who Is Protecting Our Babies???”

The assembled officials didn’t seem any more prepared to answer that now than the School Board was four years ago.

“This is a season to heal,” Superintendent Brent Jones said to the gathering. “Next will be a season to come up with strategies.”

This isn’t good enough for some parents. A few told me they aren’t sending their kids back to the school until there’s more concrete information on safety plans. Others are waiting for some resolution to the current shooting. (The alleged shooter hasn’t yet been identified by police or caught.)

Officer Bennie said there’s no way to know whether he or any other cop might have stopped last Thursday’s killing of 17-year-old student Amarr Murphy-Paine. Or the previous shooting in March, where bullets injured a 17-year-old girl at the school’s bus stop.

But there’s also no question the school needs help. Multiple parents told me their kids have reported there have been guns inside the school this year. Whether that’s rumor or hard truth almost doesn’t matter, because just the perception could lead to more guns in and around the school.

It seems less likely a student would bring a gun to school if they knew a police officer was stationed there. Radford insists the deterrence effect was real.

“It was a great program, and they never should have gotten rid of it,” he said. “All defund the police did is hurt that city.”

The problem with having officers in schools comes when they’re used to discipline students. It raises legitimate concerns about overpolicing. It’s among the reasons why the Seattle Student Union last week said it denounces “any call to reintroduce police to our schools after Black students and allies worked tirelessly in 2020 to successfully demand their removal.”

Garfield though has long had trouble with crime coming from the outside in. Former Principal Ted Howard, who was at the gathering Tuesday, used to go across the street, off school property, to confront gang members who were there to enlist or antagonize students.

Seattle’s schools simply need more protection. It’s sad to say, but this one also needs gun interdiction efforts in and around its campus.

Who can really do this besides police?

More broadly, people are calling for tougher gun control and enforcement, with shootings in Seattle up 16% this year so far. But how do you regulate guns, seize them, control them, even ban some types of them, without police doing that enforcement? It seems like a liberal disconnect.

Maybe school resource officers don’t need to be armed at all times, or be in uniform. As Mayor Bruce Harrell told the grieving Garfield crowd Tuesday, “we can have a force that isn’t a militarized force.”

But what Garfield does need is a presence. That’s what Officer Bennie was. Could Counselor Bennie or Social Worker Bennie be as much of a deterrent? Maybe. But maybe not to an angry young person who’s already gotten a stolen gun. Maybe it’s all of the above that’s required.

I’d say the “season for strategies” is well upon us, overdue in fact. It’s past time for Seattle to admit this city made a mistake, and change course.

That wrenching stomach feeling seems like it’s going to keep repeating until we do.


(c)2024 The Seattle Times
Visit The Seattle Times at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.