Across the United States, there’s a growing disconnect between young people and law enforcement. Earlier this week, outrage ensued after surveillance footage showed Irvo Otieno, 28, dying after seven sheriff’s deputies pinned him to the floor. The news followed another high-profile story from January, when Tyre Nichols, 29, was beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. Now, the numbers show young people growing increasingly wary of the police; following Nichols’s death, Gen Z’s trust in the police plummeted to 43 percent, down a staggering 15 percentage points from the previous month. And, young people who are Black or LGBTQ remain even more distrustful.
But Gen Z’s trust in law enforcement has always been low compared to older generations. Young people like me spent our impressionable years bombarded with media coverage of unarmed children being shot by the police, from 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 to a 13-year-old boy with autism experiencing a mental health crisis in 2020. The prevalence of these kinds of stories has generated unease among members of Gen Z, many of whom worry that they might meet a similar fate. It’s an understandable sentiment, given that many young people lack practical knowledge of how to invoke their rights during police encounters, with the topic rarely making it into school curriculums.
That’s a shame — when this type of education does take place, the results are markedly positive. Following the 2014 shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the New York Civil Liberties Union held a two-day workshop at a New York City public high school, where students were informed that it was best practice to remain silent and not consent to searches, that they were not required to show identification, and that they could file a complaint against an officer if their rights were violated. In the end, students left the workshop feeling more confident about handling future police encounters.
Some states are making these lessons mandatory. In Texas, driver’s education courses teach teenagers about their rights during traffic stops. A similar Illinois law ensures that students in driver’s education are told that officers must provide their name and badge number upon request. And in Michigan, a bill introduced last year seeks to integrate lessons about police encounters directly into school curriculums. A New Jersey lawmaker who advocated for a similar program in her state argued that these initiatives can counteract the growing division between young people and the police, telling NBC, “This can help rebuild the trust that is essential for law enforcement to work.”
When police officer preferences are made part of these conversations like in Virginia, students also learn proper citizen etiquette during these encounters: keeping hands visible, not making sudden movements, and not reaching for unknown and potentially dangerous items. Establishing mutual understanding ahead of time by making young people aware of what could be perceived as threatening behavior inevitably promotes the safety of both parties, with misunderstandings less likely to occur.
Some detractors make the case that teaching kids their rights and responsibilities — particularly with regard to refusing searches, filing complaints, and acting civilly to avoid confrontation — is tantamount to anti-police indoctrination, insinuating that encounters with officers are likely to result in trouble. Yet this education is more likely to have the opposite effect, building rapport and understanding between the police and young people while ensuring that both parties’ interests are accounted for. This can be particularly meaningful for young people of color, who might otherwise be inclined to simply experience fear or mistrust.
Still, most students aren’t taught this critical information today, leaving them vulnerable during police encounters. One study showed that of juveniles falsely convicted and later exonerated, 42 percent had falsely confessed without counsel present, vastly outnumbering the 13 percent of falsely convicted adults who had made the same mistake. Unfamiliarity with the proper methods for police interaction led many of these young people to make false confessions, believing it better to cooperate with investigators and have their lawyers correct the record later — despite the fact that a videotaped confession is nearly impossible to refute in court. Still, unfortunate circumstances like these remain entirely preventable when proper education is provided to young people.
Furthermore, young people who are taught their rights become concerned citizens able to hold bad officers to account. Members of my generation have famously used smartphones to document police misconduct; in fact, the viral video of George Floyd’s murder was filmed by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier. Courts have repeatedly ruled that the right to film on-duty police officers is protected by the First Amendment, and with proper preparation, young people will feel empowered to do so.
The onus to improve police-citizen interactions shouldn’t rest entirely on young people — police departments and lawmakers must continue their work to prevent abuses of power from occurring in the first place. But in the meantime, with youth trust in the police at staggering lows, an effort must be made to equip young people with the tools necessary to ensure their rights are respected.
Alex Shieh is founder and chief pollster of The Phillips Academy Poll, a polling firm run by members of Gen Z. Follow him at @alexkshieh.