That's the question posed by Sen. John Whitmire's suggestion that they be "taught how to properly interact with police when they are stopped for traffic violations or if they are detained," as the Houston Chronicle's Mike Ward reported on Thursday.
Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said his proposed legislation would require the Texas Education Agency to develop curriculum "in law enforcement duties and interaction."A few paragraphs down from the "first of its kind" claim, though, we learn that "state-required driver training programs already instruct teenagers how to act when they are stopped by police for a traffic violation." So we're assuming this instruction would be somehow better or different than what's taught in driver's ed, which is essentially the cop-centric "comply and complain" model - comply with the officer's instructions at the traffic stop and complain later if your rights were violated. Wrote Ward:
If eventually approved by the Legislature, the law would be the first of its kind in Texas.
"There is no home team or visiting team. We must all come together to develop the best strategies to improve relations and trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve," Whitmire said. "Increased training and education for both peace officers and our students will help foster positive relations and interactions."
"Too often police encounters are ending in a tragedy, and that's what we want to stop," Whitmire said. "If you feel an officer does you wrong, you don't take it up with them out on the street, you take it up with an administrator. That's one of the things I think we'll teach."But there has to be more to it than that. You can't just tell kids that the police officer's life, their rights, and their most unreasonable instructions matter more than the life, rights, or most reasonable demands for respectful treatment of a detained driver, and if you don't like it, shut up and complain later. Sure, you can tell people their rights and even their lives don't matter as much as the officers' under the law. But it's more difficult to convince an individual to abnegate their own personhood in a real-life situation than it is to do so in statute or a judicial opinion.
Regardless, since teaching "comply and complain" to generations of Texas drivers ed students hasn't done the trick, what should be in this new curriculum that would make a greater difference?
Perhaps it should be sort of an institutional version of "The Talk" which many black families have with their children as they begin to come of age. Texas collects rudimentary racial profiling data at every agency which makes traffic stops, and more detailed data on after-stop activities like searches at some agencies, including DPS. Texas could make every department gather the same data DPS does and then 9th grade schoolkids could be told: If you're black (or Hispanic, etc.) in our town, you're X times as likely to be stopped by police as your white schoolmates, Y times as likely to be searched during a traffic stop, and Z times as likely to be shot and killed. If you're white, you still might be stopped, searched, or killed by police (more whites than blacks are killed by law enforcement, though the per-capita rate is lower), so they should still know this information. And it won't hurt white kids to understand that things are different for some of their classmates than for them.
People want this information about how to interact with cops in a way that protects their rights. When I was Police Accountability Project Director at ACLU of Texas during the implementation of Texas' racial profiling law, we were asked to do "Know Your Rights" trainings all over the state about how to interact with police. A lot of people think they have more rights than they do, in some ways, but also fewer than they tend to understand at specific points in the process. Let's teach them both.
Students should be taught that police can arrest them for petty offenses, like Sandra Bland's failure-to-signal-a-lane change, at the officer's discretion, even when the law envisions no jail time as punishment for the offense. (Gov. Rick Perry vetoed legislation in 2001 to limit such arrests, but Republican state Sen. Konni Burton, who is on Chairman Whitmire's Criminal Justice Committee, has vowed to carry a newer, beefed up version in 2017. So if that passed, students could be informed in the new curriculum that they cannot be arrested for Class C misdemeanors, or whatever the rule turns out to be.)
It's true the safest time to take up an officer's misbehavior is after the fact; confronting it at the time could get you tazed, beaten, or shot. But will students be taught how seldom officers are held accountable after citizen complaints, even when there's video? In Austin, for example, "Less than 5 percent of the complaints from the public resulted in officer discipline," an audit found. The Statesman's recent look at DPS showed none of the racial profiling complaints from the public were found to be justified by the agency, even though video posted by the Statesman showed drivers being treated with open disrespect. We shouldn't advise people to complain without also telling them complaints tend to be fruitless. The purpose here should be to educate students, not propagandize them.
A curriculum which taught students the legal limits of their personal rights when interacting with police might be useful, but only if it empowers students to END interactions with police as soon as possible and explains why that's always in their personal best interests when being questioned without a lawyer. Teaching them to "comply" cannot mean "comply with questioning." Drivers must submit to short-term detention if they're pulled over but they're under no obligation to explain where they're coming from, where they're going, what they're doing, consent to a search, etc.. If the curriculum does not acknowledge those limitations on officers' ability to enforce compliance and ignores drivers' civil liberties in favor of emphasizing cops' authority, it won't solve the problem and may make it worse.
There are also plenty of facts, figures, history, and basic civics they could be taught which might help provide meaningful context, perhaps dating back to the Fourth Amendment's creation in response to unreasonable searches by law enforcement under King George which helped spark the American Revolution. Students could be shown video montages of unarmed people being shot or assaulted by police - perhaps even video from Rodney King's beating - so they can understand fully that being unarmed or even submissive will not necessarily keep a cop from assaulting, shooting, or even killing you. Such a curriculum would truly inspire caution, perhaps even sufficient to make an impression strong enough to be recalled during those critical, decisive moments when a wrong move might get a kid killed.
Grits believes this more catholic approach could do more to reduce police shootings than teaching pure "compliance." Help the kids understand their own self interests, how and why they (in some cases literally) have skin in the game. People will never believe they have no rights and are powerless. Told so, teenagers inevitably will seek to take power themselves in unpredictable and unproductive ways. ("Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," wrote the bard.)
Education that empowers students to fully exercise their rights to limit police intrusion into their lives might reduce negative interactions by giving ninth graders tools to peacefully get away from those cops who might hurt or even kill them if they mouth off or reach into their pockets. However, such proposals mustn't divert legislative attention away from systemic changes also needed to deescalate the unnecessary aggression some police officers bring to interactions with the public. The police are the agents of the state, after all. Those ninth graders are its future rulers.