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More schools teaching students how to respond to police

Illinois law makes learning to talk to cops a part of driver's education classes
  • DEFUSE A PROBLEM—Miami Assistant Public Defender Tammy Gray, standing at right, teaches local students about their rights when detained by police officers and how to behave to prevent encounters from escalating.
  • Do what officers say—Attorney Heather Gamache and Boston Bar Association President Carol Starkey introduce second-graders to the concept of Miranda Rights, which could come in handy if they are stopped by police.

Try to stay calm. Don’t start cursing. Keep your hands off the cops.

But know that you have rights—like remaining silent, dissenting to a search and taking note of witnesses.

Such knowledge can prevent police interactions from escalating out of control when teenagers get pulled over for a motor vehicle stop or otherwise encounter law enforcement in and outside of school.

Soon, schools in at least one state will add this type of instruction to their curriculum. In the wake of several highly publicized police shootings across the nation, a law passed this summer in Illinois requires districts, starting in 2017-18, to teach students in driver’s ed classes how to behave when they get pulled over. A Texas state senator proposed a similar bill this past fall.

In Illinois, it will be up to districts to develop their own lessons. Yet various community organizations, including law enforcement, have for many years been giving presentations in which students—from kindergarteners to high school seniors—learn how to interact safely with officers.

“What we tell teens very strongly is that you want to be able to go home. If you act crazy, you don’t get a chance to go home,” says Lt. Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, one of the organizations that offers presentations. “Let the officer give you a ticket and you can go fight it in court. That’s a lot better than being carted off to jail or worse.”

Making better choices

Wilson’s organization—like many others, including the New York state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union—all stress that teens should remain composed and respectful when dealing with police. But that doesn’t mean students should give up their legal rights, among the most critical of which is remaining silent, says Brandon J. Holmes, who organizes New York ACLU’s teen workshops.

“You should tell police that you would like to remain silent,” Holmes suggests. “You should not just remain silent—that can be seen as a form of aggression.”

Students should also note any witnesses to the interaction and gather names and numbers if they believe they were treated unfairly. “You should write down everything you can remember as soon as possible,” he says. “It’s on us to collect as much information as we can in case we file a complaint.”

Students need to know that TV and other media may have misinformed them that defying police or trying to flee is the only way to protect themselves from unfair treatment, says Carol Starkey, president of the Boston Bar Association, which gives presentations on interacting with police in about a dozen schools each year.

“It’s surprising how many students don’t understand and choose to make quick decisions—like running away—that in the end, harm them even more,” Starkey says.

This school year, the bar association has been ensuring that students understand the importance of Miranda rights. “It’s a recognition of their Fifth Amendment rights not to have to give evidence against themselves,” she says. “It’s a recognition that, regardless of race, gender or income, they have to be treated equitably and fairly by police.”

The National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers has been visiting schools and community youth groups for about 25 years. Wilson, also a retired Rhode Island College police officer, says his organization also recognizes that police should prevent a situation from escalating. For instance, officers should tell motorists why they’ve been pulled over.

“I don’t care whether it’s a drug dealer or a kid you just stopped for running a red light, show them respect,” Wilson says. “If it’s something minor you stopped them for, explain to them what you stopped them for.”

Easing racial tensions

The Miami Public Defender’s Office has been giving its similar “Play it Safe” presentation for about 20 years in schools, churches and other community organizations. Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez says his office works to help teenagers understand the nuances of the law.

For example, teenagers who may have a small amount of drugs in their car can refuse consent to a search even when it’s clear an officer is going to look in their vehicle. This could help later in court if the search is found to be improper.

“You have to say ‘I’m not approving of the search’ but do not interfere with the search,” Martinez says. “If you block the officer from getting into the car and you touch the officer, that’s battery on law enforcement, and that’s a marijuana joint turned into a third-degree felony.”

Distrust of police cuts across income levels—minority students at an affluent private school where Martinez recently visited for lessons said they also were uncomfortable around police. “The kids say ‘They’re targeting us because we’re young, because we’re black,’” Martinez says. “The kids also have been able to see that it is not just race, but maybe it’s the way the police are trained—and that has led to a broader discussion.”

Starkey hopes just having conversations will lead to better relations. “With students coming from different minority cultures, there’s a lot of distrust with law enforcement—sometimes with very good reason,” she says. “Education is the start of really getting through some of that distrust and creating a bridge between the community and enforcement.”