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Victim Blaming or Basic Social Studies? Teaching Kids how to Interact Properly with Police

By Pamela Wood-Garcia

Pamela Wood-Garcia     Why have legislators decided that it is the responsibility of our youth to learn how to communicate with law enforcement? New Jersey, Texas, and Rhode Island lawmakers have introduced bills that will require “certain students” in grades K-12 to learn how to interact with police officers more effectively.

     Parents teach infants to communicate from birth through a series of sounds, body language and facial expressions. Parents have to learn what each of these signals means because children do not come with handbooks. As the communication skills of each child builds, parents can ascertain when a child is happy, sad, or cranky, etc. As children reach their teenage years, they begin to communicate a little differently; they start to assert their independence a lot more. This may result in them becoming more assertive and/or aggressive in their tone of voice and body language. Some children speak in slang and will say things that will not make sense to adults at all. As parents, sometimes we have to stop and ask our children, “ Who are you, and what have you done with my child?”

     This change in communication style does not give one the green light to go upside their child’s head. If a mom beats her child senseless with a billy club because the child’s tone of voice or body language is aggressive, that mom is going to jail. If a mom shoots her child to death because her child is acting and speaking irrationally, that mom is going to be charged with murder and will NOT get to take administrative leave from her job. If a primary caregiver becomes abusive toward a child and hurts or kills him, the responsibility does not fall on the child; the primary caregiver will be the one in court and ultimately, in prison. So, why are children being tasked with the responsibility to take and pass classes that will teach them how to properly communicate with law enforcement? Furthermore, why aren’t law enforcement officers being tasked with more responsibility, as there is proof that they are a huge part of the communication problem? Shouldn’t police be required to take child development classes, child psychology classes, in-depth diversity training with required continuing education units every year? Lawmakers seem to be overlooking this huge elephant in the room as they champion this legislation.

     The state of New Jersey is working feverently to get a bill passed that will require school-aged children to be educated on how to behave while interacting with law enforcement. Bill A114, The Police Respectability Act, was passed this past June in the New Jersey State Assembly with a 76 to 0 vote. The senate still has to pass it for it to go into effect. In a perfect world, Bill A114 would run parallel with the way law enforcement is supposed to interact with young people, especially young people of color. Unfortunately, there are so many racial disparities that occur during police interactions that a Bill like A114 would put the accountability on an already vulnerable group of people, children of color. Based on a Department of Justice Civil Rights Investigation of the Newark, New Jersey Police Department opened in May of 2011 and closed in November 2014, there was an immoderate number of unwarranted police interactions by this police department.These interactions have lead to excessive force and discriminatory actions by police. In the executive summary of the investigation’s transcript, it reads, “The NPD’s policing practices have eroded the community’s trust, and the perception of the NPD as an agency with insufficient accountability has undermined the confidence of other Newark criminal justice stakeholders as well...”

     This report goes on to delve into poor internal affairs investigative practices, theft by law enforcement, and other acts against predominantly Black citizens. There are reports similar to this in other cities in the State of New Jersey, as well as throughout the states of Texas and Rhode Island. The governor of Texas has signed Senate Bill 30 into legislation. This bill requires “certain high school students” to take classes to learn to interact with police, and it requires cops to take training in civilian interaction. Even if cops are trained in civilian interaction, as this bill would require, what good is the training if when they don’t adhere to it, they are not brought to justice? Are legislators cleaning up years of collateral damage from civil rights investigations of police departments and flipping the blame back onto a people who have been oppressed for years? It makes one wonder.

     State Assemblyperson Sheila Oliver, who sponsored the New Jersey bill, says it is not designed to place blame on children but to prepare them. You have to question for what exactly is New Jersey State Assemblyperson suggesting that our youth be prepared? When we see police shootings of Black men and women -- all over the media -- who were compliant with every order issued by law enforcement during an interaction, we know that there is no preparation that can be done. Whether we comply or not, the tone of the interaction depends on the cop.

     Some are speaking out against this bill.  New Jersey school teacher, Zellie Imani, told NBC News that he felt the bill promotes “victim-blaming.” Laila Aiziz, activist and member of the MOBB United for Social Change (MUSC) Policy Committee, rebuked the bill. “As a mother, I personally need to teach my sons to interact with the police because of the way the police will interact with my sons. It is a shame that at 10 years old, Black boys are perceived as a threat to society. Because of this, our sons are treated like public enemy number one by law enforcement. The primary thing that needs to happen is legislative change in police departments. Police training happens too quickly, and that is a problem. They want children from K-12 to learn how to interact with law enforcement. That is a great deal of training throughout a child’s school aged years. Police officers should be held to the same standard.”

     Police officers have to be held accountable for their actions for law enforcement to be effective. Bills like A114 place a lot of responsibility on young people who are just learning to communicate effectively and think critically. It implies that the onus of police brutality is on children rather than adult police officers who freely chose their professions. Proper training for law enforcement is what should be legislated.

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