Earlier this week, it was reported that Texas has passed legislation—Senate Bill 30, also known as the “Community Safety Education Act”—that requires all high school students in the Lone Star State to watch a 16-minute educational video that seeks to teach them how to safely interact with police officers during traffic stops.
“The primary purpose of this instruction is to ensure the safety of both officers and citizens before, during, and immediately following traffic stops,” says the Instructor’s Guide that accompanies the video—dubbed “Flashing Lights.”
The instructor’s guide further states, “Drivers and passengers should be aware that unknown items in a citizen’s hand may cause safety concerns for officers. The key point for students to remember is that officer instructions are focused on ensuring the safety of all involved.”
The instructor’s guide advises school teachers to “partner with a school resource officer or a representative of local law enforcement to provide this instruction.”
The instructor’s guide also suggests that educators assess students’ attitudes toward traffic stops.
“Assess whether attitudes have shifted following instruction,” the guide says. “Make sure to address any misperceptions.”
“Misperceptions” is an interesting word, especially given the widespread misperception of law enforcement among a significant segment of the American population.
Lacking Basic Knowledge
“Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government,” according to a report by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Nearly a third of Americans cannot name any [emphasis added] of the three branches of government.
According to the American Federation of Teachers, only nine states—and the District of Columbia—require one year of U.S. government or civics education, while 30 states require only a half year.
Eleven states have no required civics education whatsoever.
That’s just sad.
I’ve long held the belief that a year-long civics class should be a requirement nationwide. Further, these classes should include more than just the basic structure of government. Curriculum should incorporate information such as that provided by the video now mandated in Texas.
However, how to safely interact with a police officer during a traffic stop is just the beginning.
Curriculum should include Constitutional Law and Supreme Court cases related to the Fourth and Eighth amendments, as well as police policies, procedures, and practices.
Lessons in Case Law
As it stands now, most public education institutions requiring some manner of civics class provide instruction principally on American history and systems of government. Given the stats above, it’s questionable that this instruction is having much of an effect, but I digress…
Even when United States Supreme Court Cases are discussed, the focus tends to be on things like the 1803 decision in Marbury v. Madison, which established the authority of the Court for judicial review over acts of Congress, or Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision in which the Court declared the doctrine of “separate but equal” as unconstitutional.
That’s all well and good—these cases helped shape our Nation, and having our kids educated on them is valuable—but what about cases such as Tennessee v. Garner, Terry v. Ohio, or Miranda v. Arizona, which govern law enforcement policies and procedures? What about Graham v. Connor, which defines how an officer’s actions are to be judged after an incident?
It seems to me that woefully few Americans are even aware that such cases exist—much less understand their ramifications.
For example, if citizens had an understanding of Graham—which states, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation”—we’d have a lot fewer members of the public and the press second-guessing an officer’s actions with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight.
Or maybe not.
But trying to educate the masses—while they’re young—seems to me to be a worthwhile enterprise.
Americans should know all 27 amendments (many high school students certainly take unlawful advantage of the 21st), but those indicated above—which directly relate to interactions with police—should be the mandatory minimum.
Police Policy and Practice
If I were King, I would declare that every person in the Kingdom must complete a 36-hour (minimum) citizens’ police academy.
During a typical citizens’ academy, students learn about various aspects of police policies and procedures—hopefully coming to an understanding that everything they learned from TV and movies is implausible, improbable, and/or impossible.
Most citizens’ academies teach participants the basics of criminal law, defensive tactics, firearm safety, hostage negotiations, patrol tactics, SWAT, traffic stops, and many other subjects.
Most citizens’ academies even allow students to go on a ridealong.
But this is not a Kingdom and I’m not the King (sigh…), and there will be no declaration of mandatory attendance to a six-week after-hours course at the local police academy.
However, we can try to teach some of those topics in our schools.
In essence, we can provide the citizens’ academy via delivery.
Academy via Delivery
In my version of civics class, students would not only learn about the United States Constitution and the law-enforcement-relevant Supreme Court cases, but also the content delivered in a citizens’ police academy. We can have law enforcement officers be the instructors—even if for just a portion of the class.
I think this is best done in the eighth grade.
The kids’ brains are developed enough that there can be a reasonable expectation that they will actually grasp the material, but not “old and chiseled” enough to discount the information merely because of teenage angst and the urge for rebellion.
Indeed, such a class will not have the intended effect on every kid.
That’s of no matter. Plenty of kids flunk algebra or chemistry and manage to graduate and go on to a productive life.
SIDEBAR: I know this truth firsthand. Fortunately for me, I need neither the knowledge of the periodic table nor an understanding of the quadratic equation in order to faithfully—and legally—serve my community.
Again, I digress…
The fact that we might only have a positive effect on a third of the kids we teach about law enforcement seems to be about par for the course—that’s roughly the same percentage of kids who know that there’s an executive, legislative, and judicial branch of government.
But a third is better than nothing.
It’s certainly worth a try.