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How to Survive a Police Stop

Programs that teach young people how to interact with police are popping up around the country. But they're often exercises in victim-blaming — shifting the responsibility for avoiding lethal stops from cops to the very civilians they brutalize.

Chicago police officers attend a graduation and promotion ceremony at Navy Pier on November 19, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson / Getty

Violence is inherent to policing. As critic Kristian Williams notes, “In the field of social control, police are specialists in violence. They are armed, trained, and authorized to use force … Violence as well as the law is what they represent.”

Still, American police are particularly violent. In 2015, an article in the Guardian stunned many with its side-by-side comparisons of police violence in America relative to other countries. Iceland had one fatal police shooting in seventy-one years; Stockton, California had three in six months. Australia had ninety-four fatal police shootings between 1992 and 2011; the US had ninety-seven in March 2015.

And the numbers have not improved since then. When adjusted for population, American police killed over two hundred times more people than UK police did in 2018. In Germany, where police are far more violent than in the UK, police killed twenty-seven times fewer people than their American counterparts.

In this lethal landscape, a number of programs have emerged in the US to teach young people about how to live in the world police create. “I’m hoping the law enforcement officer will walk up, see this child doing exactly what the curriculum told them to do and think, ‘I can relax. This child knows exactly what he or she is supposed to be doing,’” Virgina House Rep. Jeion Ward told reporters after sponsoring a bill to require a course on interacting with police as part of drivers education. “And perhaps, it will not escalate.”

“Our number one goal is to teach children what they need to know to be able to live through the police stop and make it home safely,” said David Miller, founder of the Dare to Be King Project in Baltimore. “There is no silver bullet,” he added, more pessimistically. “There is no way you’ll be able to determine whether or not the police will actually harm you, but if you can be respectful and humble you stand a better chance showing the officer you’re not a threat.”

Five states — Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, and Illinois — now mandate some form of instruction on how to interact with police, either as part of the civics curriculum or drivers education. Four states — Missouri, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and West Virginia — are currently considering similar measures. Many school districts also now use informal instructional programs organized and run by police, public defenders, church groups, the ACLU, or other community organizations.

These programs are often pitched as a stopgap — a concrete way to equip young people with life-saving tools in a country where racism is intractable and structural reforms are elusive.

Yet there is a deep cynicism at work when police violence is treated as a fact of contemporary life that can only be mitigated through a series of subservient rituals. In fact, rather than fostering a less violent present and future, the programs end up shifting the onus for avoiding deadly interactions from police onto the very civilians they brutalize.

Acts of Aggression

The realities of modern policing are nowhere to be found in the various policing curricula used by states and localities. In an instructional video that high school students in Texas are now mandated to watch, police officers are portrayed as a strikingly diverse group of men and women — a stark contrast to the state’s overwhelmingly white and male police force.

An online course that Virginia now requires all Drivers Ed students to take notes that teens might have a bad attitude “because they think police are singling them out based on their age or other visible characteristics for unfair treatment.” The elephant in the room, racial discrimination in traffic stops, goes unmentioned. Later, the lesson provides four strategies “that will ensure a safe and appropriate interaction with law enforcement officers,” including “staying calm and being respectful.” Again it is silent on an obvious question: “what do I do when the police choose to attack me?”

“What we tell teens very strongly,” explains Lt. Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, a group that runs youth-outreach programs around Providence, Rhode Island, “is that you want to be able to go home …. If you act crazy, you don’t get that chance. 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.”

Brandon Holmes, who organizes teen workshops for the NYCLU, advises, “You should tell police that you would like to remain silent. You should not just remain silent — that can be seen as a form of aggression.”

The constant threat of violence, though unmentioned, hangs in the air. Police are understood as forces of nature, figures whose behavior can be slightly modified at best.

Among the “Don’ts” listed by Strategies for Youth in their presentation “Be SMART with Police” are items like “Don’t keep your hands in your pocket — take them out slowly,” “Don’t make quick movements,” and “Don’t question or mock an officer’s authority.” If you feel you were mistreated, do not bring it up to the officer — instead, file a complaint with the department later.

A presentation used in the Midwest called “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival” instructs, “Avoid physical contact with the police. No sudden movements, and keep hands out of pockets.” And “Don’t, under any circumstance, get into an argument with police.” Do not run, even if you are afraid and do not resist, even if you are innocent. Finally, they counsel: “Stay calm and remain in control. Watch your words, body language and emotions.”

There’s a startling transference of responsibility here from the adult who is ostensibly trained for the encounter — the police officer — to the teenager. The burden of restraint is not on the officer, the one with lethal force — that is the business of the child. It is the very definition of blaming the victim.

Many of these programs imply that their raison d’etre is as much about officer safety as about the well-being of the kids receiving the lesson. Texas’s recently approved curriculum guide asks, “Why should you place your hands on the steering wheel while the officer is approaching? A: For the officer’s safety; it signals that you are not armed.” Under the “Driver Dos” it warns that “certain movements, such as reaching for required documents, could be interpreted as a threat to the officer’s safety.”

This inverts the actual danger present in any encounter with police. In 2017, the last year in which we have statistics, police killed 987 people; police deaths caused by another person stood at forty-six. Police are twenty-one times more likely to kill civilians than the other way around.

Civilians like Sandra Bland. In 2015, Bland was beaten by a Texas police officer during a traffic stop and later died in police custody. What do these programs have to say about her death? While Chicago police officer Yolanda Brewer acknowledges “the officer went up to 10,” she tells students during her presentation for NOBLE: if Bland had “given him her license and insurance, she might be here with us today.”

“Are Police Officers Being Told How to Interact With Us?”

Some students know a self-serving lesson when they see one.

At a 2017 presentation for teens in Baltimore put on by the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and sponsored by the Urban League, a sixteen-year-old asked the police officer, “Since this kind of stems from police misconduct, are police officers being told how to interact with us?”

The officer volleyed that police are trained how to interact with the community in the police academy, adding that if students “show respect,” it will go “a long way in setting the tone for how the encounter will go.”

“But throughout the morning session,” a reporter for the Baltimore Sun noted, “the students sought to relate their real-life experiences and stories of Baltimore police corruption or misconduct to challenge the lessons of obedience to police being put forward.”

NOBLE runs a similar program in Chicago, where the history of police violence creates a particularly fraught environment for pro-police lecturing. Students here do not need to point to the ACLU reports documenting racism in police stops, or the fact that the vast majority of police stops in the city do not lead to arrest, or that in half the stops the ACLU reviewed police either gave an unlawful justification or no reason at all. They can simply draw on their own experience.

“We were walking and they just pulled us over,” two thirteen-year-olds at a 2015 presentation told reporters, recounting a recent police stop. “They asked what we were doing. They put our name in the system. I don’t need to have my name in the system with jailed people …. It just wasn’t fair.”

Presenters for NOBLE acknowledged that their department has “bad apples” and gave students the canned response for what to do when faced with an abusive police officer: “Cooperate at the time and file a misconduct report later.” They declined to mention that 89 percent to 96 percent of police misconduct reports in Chicago are dismissed.

The Illusion of “Doing Something”

At Oakland schools, where the Alameda County public defender’s office puts on its own presentation instructing teens how to interact with police, attorney Brendan Woods tells students to always remember the magic words: “I have the right to remain silent” and “I want a lawyer.” His co-presenter and fellow public defender Jennie Otis warns students that oversharing with police “can quickly and needlessly escalate a situation.”

This is sound legal advice, but in places like Chicago — where NOBLE advises students, “Most of the time, you should answer the questions. Because if you don’t, you’re making something that could have been two questions worse” — the hard realities of American policing inevitably intrude. This, after all, is the city where police commander John Burge ran a torture program on Chicago’s predominately black South Side from 1972 to 1991. His program did not simply mete out beatings, but also designed torture instruments — most notably a device that sent out electroshocks when applied to the testicles — for the police to extract (often false) confessions. In 2015, the Guardian revealed that Chicago police operated a black site where seven thousand people were “disappeared” for off-the-books interrogations.

And herein lies the core problem with these classes. None of them deal with the inherent power imbalance between a teenager and an agent of the state, who holds a monopoly on legitimized violence. “This legislation does not empower young people, especially those living in brown and black communities,” said Zellie Imani, a teacher and activist who opposed a recently passed New Jersey law mandating a police interaction course for students. “Instead, it empowers law enforcement by allowing them to continue to evade accountability for abuse and misconduct while forcing the burden on the public.”

Some who run these programs have a genuine desire to curb police violence. But because they assume that radical changes to policing are impossible, we are left with a series of hacks and tips that they hope might, just might, prevent the police from killing more people. Suffused with the illusion, the comfort, of “doing something,” they forget the fundamental problem: as a student in Chicago summed it up at a recent event: “We don’t know what a police officer is going to do. They always have the upper hand.”