As the fight to end police violence rages on across the country, a state senator in Texas wants high schoolers to learn how to communicate with law enforcement during traffic stops. But the proposed curriculum assumes that the people targeted during those stops are the problem— not the officers.
Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) is currently eyeing legislation that would require schools to teach ninth graders about encounters with police on the road. Noting that there’s a deep-seated mistrust of police, he wants the Texas Board of Education to ensure that young people learn what their rights are early on. But Whitmire, who says his idea was inspired by Sandra Bland’s violent arrest and subsequent death in custody, also wants students to learn how they should behave around officers who pull them over.
“Ms. Bland’s tragedy is a huge motivation for me to hold the officer accountable and also assist the public in some of the better practices when they encounter law enforcement,” he told the Texas Tribune. “[If] Ms. Bland and the officer would have taken a deep breath, I don’t believe she would have been taken to jail, where she ultimately met her fate, unfortunately because she was not treated right when she got to jail.”
“You need to know what your rights are and the best way to express them,” said Whitmire,” he added.
A second legislator, state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), is also looking at legislation to add specific language about traffic stops to drivers’ education courses and written materials.
But underlying the proposed legislation is the assumption that abiding by certain rules will always keep drivers safe, and that people can control how officers respond to them. The fatal shooting of countless people — including, recently, Philando Castile — proves otherwise.
In July, Castile was pulled over for a broken tail light in Minnesota. According to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, Castile was instructed by Officer Jeronimo Yanez to produce his license and registration. He informed the officer that he was armed and had a license to carry, but Yanez still opened fire while Castile was reaching for his wallet.
Shortly after the shooting, Castile’s mother told CNN that she always taught her son how to respond to officers.
“That was something we always discussed. Comply,” she explained. “That’s the key thing, in order to try to survive being stopped by police. Whatever they ask you to do, don’t say nothing. Just do whatever they want you to do.”
Castile took that advice to heart, but in the end, he was killed anyway.
As for teenagers in Texas, it’s impossible to know if officers will shoot them during traffic stops — even if they’re obeying orders and expressing their rights in a respectful way. While Whitmire said that officers should also let go of the “‘I caught you’ mentality,” his proposal still puts the responsibility of de-escalation on teenagers, rather than the adults hired to serve and protect them.
Local police officers included in conversations about the proposed legislation agree that the responsibility to reduce tension during a stop shouldn’t fall on officers’ shoulders.
“On the side of the street is not the place to litigate what you believe the officer is doing is wrong or what the officer believes you are doing wrong,” Executive Director Kevin Lawrence of the Texas Municipal Police Association explained to the Tribune. “It needs to be a better understanding by our general citizenry of what law enforcement is expecting of them. They need to understand that when they’re being contacted by a law enforcement officer — we’ll just take a traffic stop as an example — they need to think about that stop from the officer’s point of view, not their own.”
While well-intentioned, Whitmire isn’t the first lawmaker to offer advice about how to behave around cops. And not all of that advice has been positive.
Following the shooting death of Jamar Clark in Minnesota, Rep. Tony Cornish (R) wrote an op-ed about how to “reduce the use of force by police.” In it, he wrote, “Don’t be a thug and lead a life of crime so that you come into frequent contact with police,” and “Don’t make furtive movements or keep your hands in your pockets if told to take them out.”