CHOOSING TO OBEY a police officer is never a guarantee that a person of color won’t still be shot dead by a cop. That’s why I’m skeptical about a New Jersey bill, one that seems both well intentioned and misguided.
Four Garden State Democrats sponsored a bill requiring school districts to add to their curriculum instructions for all K-12 students on how to interact with law enforcement. It sailed unanimously last week in the state General Assembly and has now moved onto the state Senate. If passed, it would go into effect for the 2018-2019 school year. Students will also be taught about “an individual’s rights under law” during interactions with officers. Earlier this month, a similar law was passed in Texas.
“Interactions with police can be nerve-wracking,” said Ralph Caputo, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Teaching our young people the proper protocols when dealing with police can help prevent senseless tragedies.” Sheila Oliver, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the goal is “to help rebuild the trust that is essential for law enforcement to work. This is not about assigning blame or responsibility, but rather an attempt to empower our young people so they know what to do and what not to do.”
In recent years, it was often the officer’s actions that elevated routine situations into lethal ones. When his car was stopped last summer in suburban Minnesota, Philando Castile was polite. He never raised his voice. He calmly informed the officer that he was carrying a firearm, reiterated that he would not pull the gun out, and he didn’t. For reasons obvious only to the jury who ultimately acquitted him earlier this month, the officer still shot Castile five times, killing him.
If schools in New Jersey and beyond decide to adapt officer interaction instruction, it will only supplement “the talk” that many parents of color have been imparting to their children for decades. A day after Castile’s death, my cousin’s son, Justin, then 16, texted me about the reluctant but necessary conversation his own father had with him about what to do if a cop approaches or stops him. He was both angry and sadly pragmatic.
“Even if an officer’s assumptions were DEAD WRONG [his emphasis], I still have to listen to what they say and not talk back so I don’t end up shot,” he wrote. “But that bothers me [because] if they are completely wrong I feel like I have a right to say something. But then again I don’t want a #prayforjustin thing going around social media.” In that sobering moment, he realized his rights may not protect him and that law enforcement may view him, a young black male, only as a suspect and threat.
I don’t doubt that NJ Assembly legislators want to save lives with its bill. Still, I can’t shake its potential side effect — unwittingly shifting from officers to citizens the responsibility for the outcome of these interactions, while law enforcement continues to act with impunity. It’s like telling women how to avoid becoming sexual assault victims, yet saying nothing to men about their own behavior.
Especially in communities of color, only when officers stop killing men and women who pose no serious threat will any semblance of trust between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve come to fruition. That won’t happen unless police officers, not just school students, are better trained on how to avoid escalating encounters into tragedies, and are held accountable when they don’t. Civility has its limits, and African-Americans and Latinos can’t count on it to save them from winding up in a refrigerated drawer with a toe tag.