There are somewhere north of 60,000 law enforcement officers in Texas and more than 28 million residents. If education is going to solve the problem, pure practicality would dictate beginning with the 60k instead of the 28 million, even if you're doing it just one generation at a time as they pass through the ninth grade. But suggestions for police deescalation training were vague and nebulous, while a curriculum for ninth graders was discussed in much more concrete terms.
Sandra Bland's case was held up as an example of citizens needing better training, but I don't wholly agree. (Let's put aside for the moment that Sandra Bland grew up out of state and came to Texas to go to college, so the proposal couldn't have impacted her situation.) If you watch the video, at the moment the trooper put his hands on Ms. Bland and told her she was under arrest, she had done nothing more illegal than failure to signal a lane change and was being arrested for a Class C misdemeanor. She resisted - because the arrest was complete and utter bullshit and the trooper was a jerk - so that got her a more significant charge. But what started it all was Brian Encina getting angry because Sandra Bland wouldn't put out her cigarette, grabbing her to yank her out of the vehicle, and announcing she was under arrest for failure to signal a lane change.
If the trooper were better trained and never laid hands on Ms. Bland, OR if the Lege had changed the law to ban arrests for Class C misdemeanors (for which the max punishment is only a fine, not jail time) so he couldn't have legally arrested her, that may have prevented her eventual, tragic death. Bland's instinctual impulse to resist never arises if the trooper doesn't try to bully her and improperly assert his dominance. It's hard to see how you can educate that sort of basic human reaction away, any more than abstinence-only education in high school stops teens from having sex.
The problem is you're trying to educate people to accept being disrespected and demeaned by someone whose salary is paid from their taxes. The SA Current reported a telling exchange from the hearing which encapsulates this problem:
Shortly into this morning's Senate hearing on criminal justice, Senator José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat, brought up his own experience with law enforcement.But exactly why should the senator avoid reacting to the officer's implication that he stole the car he was in if he thinks he's being racially profiled? I don't understand. The officer asked what the senator viewed as an insulting question. Why is it on the driver to withstand and ignore the insult? Why shouldn't it be on the officer (and by extension, those who trained her) to behave more respectfully? If the driver asks questions that imply the officer is corrupt, a wife-beater, a thief, a liar, etc., would we expect the officer to react calmly?
"I've gotten pulled over a couple times," he said. "And the first thing the officer asks is, 'Is this your car?' And I want to ask, 'Why, is it because it looked like I borrowed it?'"
Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice replied, with a chuckle: "That's what we're going to teach in the class not to say."
Here again, as with Sandra Bland: An officer instigates, the driver reacts (or at least considers it), and somehow it's the reacting driver, not the instigating officer (the only person in the interaction actually employed by the government), who this proposal seeks to hold responsible for bad outcomes. This is a basic cart-before-the-horse situation: If government can control its own employees and train them to behave more respectfully - not turning every citizen interaction into some investigative detention or petty personal power play - the state won't need to "educate" its citizens on how to successfully survive interactions with them without being killed.
Sen. Menendez's experience also brings up a point about the proposed curriculum that Grits mentioned over the weekend:
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.Bishop James Dixon from Houston similarly pinned blame for negative interactions on officers seeking to use traffic stops as a platform for investigating the driver on unrelated offenses for which the officer has no evidence:
Bishop James Dixon of the Community of Faith congregation in Houston told the committee about being followed by a police officer for two miles before he was pulled over and surrounded by four police cars. “I don’t think that’s happening to my white brothers and sisters,” he said.That's an accurate assessment - the officer is trying to provoke the driver. So the state can train millions of people to withstand provocation by government employees, or teach a few thousand of its agents to not intentionally provoke people. On its face, which do you think would do more to reduce problematic traffic stop interactions?
“I feel threatened whenever the police stop me,” Dixon said. “I am an endangered species. So is my 9-year-old son.”
During traffic stops, Dixon suggested requiring officers to identify themselves and state why they pulled the driver over before asking questions. “I have been asked, ‘Is that car yours? Where are you going?’ — as opposed to, ‘Good afternoon, my name is officer so-and-so and the reason that I stopped you is,’” Dixon said.
“The tone the officer uses to ask me a question lets me know if the officer is simply trying to provoke me or if he’s trying to get information,” he said.
Beyond pragmatism, there are at least three good reasons the officer in that situation bears the lion's share of responsibility compared to the driver. 1) It's their job for which they've received extensive, detailed training while the driver is a random person chosen literally off the street. 2) The power differential - in terms of legal authority, strategic positioning and firepower - is all in the officer's favor, and power exercised arrogantly spurs resentment. And 3) The officer initiated the interaction, the driver did not ask for it and does not want it. The driver is reacting, while the officer is in control or, in cases such as Trooper Encina's, looking to establish it. But often, deescalation is more appropriate and would prevent these sort of negative outcomes. Limiting aggressive police tactics at traffic stops can reduce animus and ill will from the public. Sandra Bland couldn't make Trooper Encina NOT put his hands on her, that was his choice. (And it rightly cost him his job.)
At the hearing, Whitmire's proposal faced no opposition. But the Texas Observer quoted a spokesman for Black Lives Matter: Houston who dubbed the proposal victim blaming: “It’s an insult. It just seems to me that they are trying to satisfy the demands and needs of the police unions.” The liberal site Think Progress called it a "well-intentioned, backwards plan to improve traffic stops with police," complaining that "the proposed curriculum assumes that the people targeted during those stops are the problem— not the officers."
To be fair, at one point Chairman Whitmire did opine that, “It is not as simple as 'obey and complain' – it’s too simplistic.” Reported the Tribune:
Officers also have to shift from an "I caught you" mentality to a protective one, Whitmire said.But the comply-and-complain meme (Whitmire's "obey and complain" is a better description), which has been a cornerstone of how students are taught to interact with police officers in Texas drivers ed courses for decades, dominated the ledes of much of the MSM coverage from the hearing as though it were something new under the sun and not a theme countless black parents have pounded into their children's heads for generations, too often to no avail.
"If you see young people out at night on a corner, instead of driving up like you're trying to see who's got some dope, would it not be better if you drove up and see if something you can do to help them get home safely?" he said.
That's the dilemma: Compliance won't always protect you and complaining generally hasn't made a difference. Without addressing those failures, which are problems for police agencies and legislators to confront, not the public, there's not much you could tell kids in a ninth grade classroom that will fundamentally alter this dynamic.
Finally, Clay Robison of the Texas State Teachers Association made an important and largely neglected point from the perspective of educators: "To make such a lesson work, there would need to be uniformity in what students should expect from law enforcement across jurisdictions." Right now that's not the case. So again, the first thing to do if we want this education to happen is focus on police disciplinary systems and training, so students receiving the curriculum in one part of the state will know it applies when they travel to another. Without that uniformity, there's no way for TEA to develop a consistent, statewide curriculum.
Police shooting too many people is the government's problem to fix. Training youth how to exercise their rights in ways that end police encounters as quickly and safely as possible - and to demand an attorney if the officer wants to question them further - might in the long run help the problem. But just telling kids "shut up and do what you're told" won't be sufficient. In the near term, we'd get a lot more bang for the buck training officers in PERF-approved deescalation methods and empowering departments to punish bad cops.
RELATED: What should we teach ninth graders so police won't shoot them?