Parents of black children have long had “the talk” with their daughters and especially their sons. Not the one about sex, but the one about how to interact with cops and walk away unharmed.
“Get stopped for a traffic violation: Use your Sunday school manners. Keep your hands where they can be seen, and above all else, do not argue," an Indianapolis mother reportedly told her 24-year-old black son.
This private conversation has slowly moved into the consciousness of Americans of all races as police shootings of black men have been caught on video and sparked outrage and fear across the country. It has largely been the duty of family members to educate children about this tragic issue -- until recently.
In the last two years, several states passed laws mandating public schools or driver’s education courses (or both) to teach students what constitutes appropriate behavior in interactions with police, particularly during traffic stops.
The measures have faced opposition from groups like Black Lives Matter (BLM), which say they place the blame for violent encounters -- and the burden of preventing them -- on civilians. Ironically, they’re also sometimes criticized by police advocates, who argue that it encourages and may worsen the fears people already have about cops.
Still, several states passed the laws quickly and easily.
In June, Texas became the latest. The new law there requires high schools to offer instruction on how students should conduct themselves whenever they come into contact with cops. The law also calls for these lessons in private driver’s education courses, and -- uniquely among states that have passed this kind of legislation -- for police to be trained on de-escalation techniques.
North Carolina and Virginia recently enacted similar laws as did Illinois -- though that one was criticized for not offering students enough information on people’s rights during traffic stops. Similar legislation died in committee in the Mississippi Legislature.
In New Jersey, a bill passed the General Assembly and is awaiting consideration in the state Senate. The legislation, according to a press release from Assembly Democrats, would require every school district to teach about police responsibilities and civilians’ rights as well as civilians’ responsibilities to comply with officers' requests. Students would receive one part of the curriculum between kindergarten and fourth grade, and the second part between fifth and 12th grade. The curriculum has yet to be created but would require input from several organizations representing both police and communities, like the State Fraternal Order of Police and the ACLU.
Black Lives Matter’s New Jersey chapter has come out against the bill, protesting it at the statehouse. Alexis Miller, the lead organizer of BLM's Paterson, N.J., chapter, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the bill’s concept is fundamentally flawed.
“This bill is clearly designed to create a scapegoat for police brutality, and that scapegoat is New Jersey’s children,” she said. “Students ... are expected to master the idea of respectability politics in order to protect themselves from officers.”
This is a criticism that has often faced programs around the country that already offer trainings and workshops on interactions with police, like the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The organization has several “know your rights” workshops, and one of their most requested involves police encounters, which they teach at public schools and youth programs all over the state. It teaches people what their rights are as well as tips for de-escalating situations and staying calm.
“I do think it’s a bit ridiculous that we have this frame where it’s the responsibility of civilians to control themselves and protect themselves in these encounters, especially when you think about the power disparities between someone stopped on the street and an officer with a badge and a gun,” says Michael Sisitzky, senior policy counsel at the NYCLU. “But in the absence of real accountability for police, knowing your rights is better than nothing.”
On the other end of the spectrum, critics like Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, complain that these lessons can portray cops as “public enemy No. 1." However, O’Donnell told Governing he thinks curriculum like this can be useful if it’s crafted correctly.
“[Lessons like this] relegitimize the police, if they’re done properly,” he says. “It’s important to know that when you’re interacting with police, it’s not an interaction of equals. The police have the upper hand, and they are supposed to.”
O’Donnell says that any curriculum should emphasize not just people’s rights but their civic responsibilities within society, including respect for police officers as extensions of the law. Some state laws (like the one being considered in New Jersey) make explicit mention of civilian responsibility in police encounters, but they all appear to take an individual's rights into heavy consideration.
Sisitzky, for his part, defends the approach of the NYCLU and other programs, state-mandated or not, that focus their curriculum on people’s rights.
“Our goal is never to instill more fear in communities or to say that all police are bad and these encounters are always going to escalate,” he says. “But we acknowledge reality, which is that there is already fear. We don’t want to be talking about these encounters in a utopia that simply doesn’t exist."
*This story has been updated to fix a spelling error.