Given the recent coverage of Americans – particularly racial and ethnic minorities – being senselessly killed during interactions with law enforcement, many have searched for solutions to repair the “fractured” trust between the police and the public. Although well-intentioned, New Jersey’s proposed solution – a bill requiring schools to teach proper citizen-law enforcement etiquette to kindergartners – is misguided. Law enforcement should bear the obligation of rebuilding trust, not school-children.
The bill in question, A1114, “[r]equires school districts to provide instruction on interacting with law enforcement as part of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Social Studies.” It recently passed the NJ Assembly unanimously. According to the Assembly Education Committee, the bill requires school districts to provide instruction on interacting with law enforcement “in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect,” and based on the rights of individuals when interacting with a law enforcement official. Part of the information required regards an “individual’s responsibility to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official. “Age-appropriate” instruction must be provided for grades kindergarten through fourth grade, with more “rigorous” instruction required for grades 5-12. To effectuate the instruction, the Commissioner of Education must appoint an advisory community to develop the curriculum. Committee representatives must be selected from ten organizations, almost half of which – four – are affiliated with law enforcement. The ACLU and NAACP are also included on the list.
Clearly, solutions are needed, but indoctrination of eight-year-olds in the absence of their parents is not a good one. Extensive statistical data on the disparities in stops, arrests, convictions, and killings prove that the pervasive lack of trust in law enforcement is warranted, and it is certainly not the obligation of kindergartners to rebuild it. All too often, these interactions are matters of life and death, and the decision to place teachers – many of whom do not share the lived experiences of the students they teach – in the position of teaching students how to best navigate them is problematic. We all know that the citizen-law enforcement “rules of engagement” are far from uniform. Members of different groups are treated very differently than members of other groups. Would the curriculum be different for blacks and Latinos as opposed to whites or members of Native American tribes? Would poor children be taught different lessons on police interaction than the children of wealthy parents? We’re not dealing with a lesson in fourth-grade arithmetic or ninth-grade algebra here; it’s one thing to know what your rights are, but it is s a completely different thing to know how to behave when those rights are being violated by law enforcement. “Proper” police interaction is not governed by the laws of mathematics.
In addition to the obvious objections to the prudence of the bill, my own disturbing encounter with law enforcement informs my opinions here. Compared to other’s interactions it was benign, but nevertheless poignant for me. One night, around 10:00 pm, I took a break from studying and decided to take a short walk from the graduate dormitory to the local 7-11 to get something to drink. At the time, I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, studying Political Science with a concentration on the intersection of race and democracy. As a black man, I never felt completely at ease on campus – there were only a handful of graduate students of color on campus. I had made this short walk countless times but this night was different. As I approached the street corner across from the 7-11 – a corner upon which sat an old church – I was confronted by a plainclothes campus police officer. He was short and squat and shabbily dressed. He smilingly and politely asked me if he could speak to me for a minute. I actually thought he was a homeless person, and I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t have time. Still smiling, his request then turned into a demand, and I could see his uniformed partner coming up behind him. The uniformed officer placed his hand on his weapon and asked me for my identification. Three squad cars pulled up to the scene.
Seeking to put a quick end to the encounter, I told him I was a graduate student at Penn and lived in the dorms about a block away. I could tell he didn’t believe me. I produced my student identification card, my passport to the university. He glanced at it dismissively, flipping it over a few times, as if it was counterfeit. At that point, I had a feeling this wasn’t going to go well. “So, where you headed tonight?” My anger began to rise, as I debated whether to answer any of his questions. I asked the uniformed officer what this was all about. His visage and demeanor were mean and aggressive, yet the tone of his voice was calm and controlled. I could tell he wasn’t too keen on answering my questions. Still he replied, “we got a report of someone stealing laptops from the main campus library and you fit the description.” I couldn’t believe he actually used the phrase “fit the description.” I was already seething when I asked him, “oh, and what description is that?” As he looked me up and down he replied, “uh, black male, about your height, uh, dressed the same way you are, carrying a computer bag. Is that a computer bag you’re carrying?” His words were sickeningly scripted and the fact that he wasn’t even attempting to disguise the charade was making me angry. And he knew it.
I was actually carrying an over-the-shoulder bag to carry my drinks in. Because of my disability, I had trouble carrying things in my hands. “No, it’s not,” I said looking the officer in his eyes. He asked, “well, could someone carry a laptop in it?” I wasn’t about to get into some philosophical debate about the nature of laptop bags, and I could tell the officers could see how incensed I was becoming. The shabbily dressed officer said nothing at this time, and I could tell he thought the whole thing was a joke; he knew full well I was clearly not the person they were looking for, if that person existed at all. Of course, as a graduate student I spent a great deal of time in the library and frequently saw students leave their laptops unattended, sometimes for hours. And, since no one could get through security to enter the library without university identification, the culprit was probably a student, thus probably white. The whole thing was farcical, and both the short, squat officer and I knew it. He knew what was happening was wrong – I could even tell he felt some sympathy for my predicament – yet he never intervened and would have silently watched me transition from detainee to arrestee.
The whole moment was both surreal and obscene, but the deadly seriousness of it never escaped me, just as the uniformed officer’s sneer seemed to never escape his face, and throughout the entire episode his right hand never seemed to escape his gun. I had been looking in his eyes the whole time. He was waiting for me to give him a reason to use it. He then “asked” me to wait while they brought one of the library security guards by to make an identification. I sat on the stairs of the church, fuming and in disbelief, while the police cars continued to gather and a white female passer-by stared at me with fear in her eyes and literally pulled her small daughter closer to her in an attempt to safeguard her innocence from me. To her and the law enforcement officers who were tasked with protecting Penn’s precious and privileged students from Philadelphia’s uncivilized black indigene, I was already guilty. But that guilt paled in comparison to the guilt I felt as I awaited my fate on the church steps, a guilt that erupted within me because I had failed to exhibit what I believed to be that obligatory degree of non-compliance that would properly venerate the struggles and sacrifices of my ancestors, and instead chose to comply with the orders of an agent of a racist system simply because I didn’t want my mother to turn on the evening news and discover that her elder son had been shot dead by a cop.
In that moment, the blackness of my body was crystallized as criminal. In the officer’s eyes, I saw the glare of impunity. The dormant nigger within me had been forced to emerge and he was a lot darker than I thought he would be. In the empty shadow of the church’s embrace, I realized that none of my accomplishments mattered. I had graduated from Howard University School of Law, the home of Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston and many other great legal minds that had helped to engineer the long march toward ending segregation in the U.S. While employed at a “big law” law firm, I had actually participated in a program to educate a small group of poor and minority New York City high school students about their rights under the Bill of Rights. I even helped teach constitutional law to Penn undergraduates as a graduate teaching assistant. Sitting in front of the church all of my legal knowledge about my rights when interacting with law enforcement leaked out of me into a shallow pool on the sidewalk, down to the curb, down the sewer drain and began to stink.
To be sure, I’ve had many pleasant interactions with law enforcement. In fact, the overwhelming majority have been. However, the fact remains that when interacting with law enforcement, negotiating the convergence between theory and practice can be complex and confusing, even for an adult with legal training. I can’t even begin to imagine how a third-grader an eighth-grader or a high school junior could begin to reconcile the social and political specificities of law enforcement interaction within the context of the lived experiences of friends and family members, not to mention the seemingly endless stories of minorities being senselessly killed by police officers. In reality, there are no simple answers when it comes to interacting with law enforcement, particularly for people of color. There are no “right” answers that an advisory committee can recommend. “Mutual cooperation and respect” is at best a hollow phrase, and at worst it serves as a non-so-cleverly disguised euphemism for “do as you’re told and don’t question my authority or else I’ll get really, really angry and take it out on you.”
My situation turned out much differently than Michael Brown’s, Freddy Gray’s, Eric Garner’s, Philando Castile’s, Zachary Bearheels, Jeanetta Riley, Corey Kanosh and many, many others. In my case, the library security guard came to the scene, told the police that I was not who they were looking for and I was allowed to leave. The next day I received a phone call from campus police apologizing effusively for any inconvenience that the previous night’s detention may have caused. But no apology can bring back those who were less lucky, those who did as they were told, or were mentally unable to do so, and were still killed. Parents, not public schools, should teach their children about these issues. Perhaps the New Jersey politicians and police should confront their own internal criminal pathologies before foisting them to innocent school-children.