State legislators are exploring having Texas schools teach students how to act when stopped by law enforcement, and the Department of Public Safety is mulling new language in its guidelines for drivers when they see flashing lights in their rear-view mirrors. The proposed changes come after years of high-profile fatal encounters between police and civilians, particularly among unarmed black men and women.
State Sen. John Whitmire, who wants Texas’ ninth graders to begin learning about their rights and how to act during traffic stops, said many communities distrust their law enforcement. Ninth graders are impressionable and are just getting behind the wheel for the first time, the Houston Democrat said.
“You need to know what your rights are and the best way to express them,” said Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which will hear testimony Tuesday on the subject. “For instance, how many individuals know where the internal affairs department is? It’s not focused on how to de-escalate something just because you get pulled over by law enforcement. I think that’s important, and I think that’s when most of us have an encounter with the police.”
In Texas, that distrust is perhaps most notable in the case of Sandra Bland, a black woman from Illinois who in 2015 was arrested in Waller County after failing to signal a lane change. A heated back and forth with the trooper who stopped her ensued. Bland was found hanged in her jail cell three days after her arrest, spurring lawmakers, activists and policy experts to seek reforms in jail standards, mental health in the criminal justice system and now in traffic stops.
“I don’t have to go any further than to look at Ms. Bland’s situation, which still is a tragedy that did not have to happen if both parties would have de-escalated the situation,” Whitmire said. “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 – 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.”
The idea sounds encouraging, said Clay Robison, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association.
“Like everybody else, we’re distressed about how many intersections between police and members of the public have turned fatal in recent years, particularly involving African-American men,” he said. “But, still, anybody could be stopped by police on any occasion and it’s always a good idea to know what to do.”
To make such a lesson work, there would need to be uniformity in what students should expect from law enforcement across jurisdictions, Robison said.
Law enforcement leaders and civil rights organizations have met with state Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) to discuss changing the language in Texas’ driver handbook and education curriculum that advises drivers on what to do when stopped by an officer.
The directions are basic: Move to the side of the road, turn off the car, stay inside, follow the officer’s instructions, tell passengers not to exit unless told to do so and safely and properly get back onto the road when cleared to by the officer.
Escalations occur because of a misunderstanding civilians have about officers, said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association and a party to the talks, which are expected to resume this week.
“I think a large percentage of our population is misinformed about exactly what law enforcement’s role is, what their duties are, what their authorities are, when it comes to that stop,” Lawrence said.
Repeating a phrase he heard from a minister, he said, “You need to remember a simple rule: ‘Comply, then complain.’”
“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. That’s part of what this curriculum needs to be,” Lawrence said. “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.”
An officer doesn’t know what to expect during a stop, Lawrence said.
“You could be an escaped felon. You could be a bank robber. You could have a dead body in the trunk of that car for all that officer knows,” he said. “So the officer is going to take certain steps to protect himself or herself in initiating that traffic stop. You, on the other hand, you know exactly who’s stopping you: It’s the po-po.”
Law enforcement also has a responsibility, Lawrence said. Agencies should take a page out of the private sector book and constantly solicit feedback, he said.
“Every time we have a contact, we should hand that individual a form that says, hey, by the way, if you’re unhappy about anything that I’ve done today, here’s the process by which you go about filing a complaint against me,” he said. “And if you’re happy about it, here’s a process by which you can go online and give us some feedback.”
Officers also have to shift from an “I caught you” mentality to a protective one, Whitmire said.
“If you see young people out at night on a corner, instead of driving up like you’re trying to see who’s got some dope, would it not be better if you drove up and see if something you can do to help them get home safely?” he said. “I just think there’s a real division to that now that this course could be our first step in improving.”
Read more coverage on the Texas criminal justice system:
To Help Rehabilitate Juveniles, Texas Keeping Them Closer to Home – More than a year after state lawmakers told it to stop incarcerating so many teenagers, the Texas Juvenile Justice Department has diverted 52 juvenile offenders for rehabilitation instead of shipping them to state lockups.
Sandra Bland’s Family Settles Wrongful Death Lawsuit – The fight began on July 10, 2015, when former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia stopped Bland, a 28-year-old woman from Illinois, near the Prairie View A&M University campus for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument, the trooper arrested Bland for assaulting a public servant. Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell at Waller County Jail. Her death was ruled a suicide.
Seeing a Threat, Police Will Shoot an Unarmed Individual – Public outcries over shootings of unarmed people are often especially pronounced, underpinned with the inference that police should seldom find it necessary to unleash lethal force on unarmed civilians. But police note that the lack of a weapon does not render some individuals any less dangerous.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.
Top image: A police car pulls over a civilian. Photo by Otis Blank for the Texas Tribune.