City and county law enforcement leaders defended programs that place police officers in schools. Critics say they’re a key component in the school-to-prison pipeline for students — especially minorities.

Rochester NAACP hosted a virtual town hall Thursday night, along with Rochester for Justice, Barbershop Talk, the Diversity Council and Sierra Club. W.C. Jordan Jr., president of the Minnesota/Dakotas branch of the NAACP, moderated the event.

Use of force, law enforcement funding, and social services were discussed in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25. An audience of more than 400 people participated in the forum to address law enforcement and equality issues.

Olmsted County Sheriff Kevin Torgerson and Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin each described the school resource officers as playing a key role in keeping students safe, acting as ambassadors from law enforcement to students, and mentoring students.

“If you look closely, you will find SROs (school resource officers) walking and talking with students, interacting with them in the lunchroom,” Franklin said.

Jordan noted that Rochester Public Schools has a disparity in discipline incidents among minority students compared to their white peers.

“Are you saying police officers are not adding to that metric?” he asked.

Franklin said SROs aren’t involved in school discipline.

Kamau Wilkins of Rochester for Justice said it sounds as though SROs spend much of their time doing non-police work.

“Why not pay for school counselors rather than SROs?” Wilkins asked.

A viewer submitted a question to Franklin about statistics that would justify having police officers in schools. He didn’t cite any stats, but he did reiterate his belief in their importance. Torgerson agreed.

“I think anyone looking to stop a program like that needs to look deeply at it and not just look at the data and say the data doesn’t support that,” he said. “I think kids and teachers will tell you that.”

The law enforcement leaders also fielded questions about use-of-force policies.

Franklin said every incident of use of force by officers is reviewed internally regardless of whether anyone brings a complaint against an officer. He said the only use-of-force complaint filed against officers in the past year was filed by himself after he reviewed an incident.

Both said the nature of their jobs and calls to law enforcement have changed as the number of calls for people in crises have increased. Franklin noted that city officers work with a social worker, Megan Schueller, on many of those calls.

“I’d take three or four more of them, so I have one on every shift,” Franklin said. “That’s the wave of the future; that’s best practices.”

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton reiterated her opposition to defunding the police. She noted that most of the social services, such as affordable housing and mental health initiatives, are county-led programs.

“I don’t think it’s an either/or,” she said. “I don’t think you want to pit one against the other.”

Torgerson and Franklin both said a knee to a person’s neck — the manner of restraint used against Floyd by Minneapolis police — isn’t taught or tolerated in either department. Torgerson called it “incomprehensible.”

Franklin noted that new departmental policy requires Rochester police to intervene if they think an officer is acting inappropriately.

Organizers said this virtual event was the first in a series of public virtual discussions. The other events have not yet been scheduled.