How to Deal With the Police

A workshop is teaching students how to handle confrontations with law enforcement, but some fear the class only reinforces negative stereotypes of cops.

Marcos Vasconcelos/Flickr

It wasn’t hard for Mark Federman to empathize with his students and their daily fears about law enforcement. “I’ve been in these communities for 20 years,” the longtime high school principal said. “It’s just something you know is out there.”

For the past 14 years, Federman has overseen East Side Community High, a predominantly black and Latino public school in New York City’s East Village. During that time he’s noticed an increasingly frayed relationship between young people of color and the police, a revelation that prompted him to come up with his own solution. Whether his approach will enhance the relationship or exacerbate tensions, however, is unclear.

The relationship between black and Latino youth and law enforcement has come under the national spotlight in recent months, particularly in the aftermath of the non-indictment of the police officers in the highly publicized deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Subsequent protests and marches have placed the issue firmly on Federman’s radar: “It’s just a reality,” he said. “Of course, you can’t exactly measure distrust, but we also can’t say what kids should or shouldn’t feel.”

So, as details after the surrounding the Brown and Garner incidents emerged, Federman saw an opportunity to get proactive with his students. He recently called on the New York Civil Liberties Union, or NYCLU, to help him organize a two-day workshop at the school. The goal of the course? To teach kids how to react appropriately if they are stopped by police officers.

The NYCLU has been offering the workshop— titled “What To Do if You’re Stopped By The Police”—to interested groups for five years now. It’s designed to inform people, many of them teenage students, about their rights in the event of a police encounter. The program goes from campus to campus (schools typically seek out the NYCLU’s services), teaching kids strategies to ensure their encounters with police officers are brief and—most importantly—safe.

Programs such as this are well-intentioned. But they walk a fine line between educating teens on how to react responsibly to law enforcement and promoting negative stereotypes about cops—preconceived notions that could end up exacerbating tensions. Some critics fear that such programs bolster and legitimize the kinds of latent fears about law enforcement that are widespread in these communities. These exact issues are again coming to a head following the execution-style murders this past weekend of two policemen in Brooklyn. Though the situation is still under investigation, the incident could serve as yet another example of what happens when the line between legitimately raising awareness about law enforcement and hyping up an “us versus them” mentality is blurred.

According to Candis Tolliver—who helps oversee advocacy efforts at the NYCLU and runs the workshops—requests for the already-popular educational program have gone up recently.  “This isn’t new for people; what’s different is that there are a lot of people ready to push back,” she said. Tolliver usually begins the sessions by assessing the students’ outlook on current events and the police, after which she explains their rights. This last part is one of the most challenging aspects of the class, according to Tolliver, because minority teens are conditioned to expect hostile and aggressive police behavior. “Most of the time they don’t even know when their rights are being violated,” she said.

“I usually start with a conversation, then I try to gauge what their experiences have been.” Tolliver said, noting that she tailors her sessions depending on the audience, which often means black and Latino teens. “A lot of them have had past experiences with the NYPD.”

Tolliver’s lessons cover topics ranging from speaking to officers to consenting to searches and emphasize the importance of following instructions: “I talk to them about staying calm, being respectful, and how to de-escalate a negative situation and turn it into a positive one.”

Unfortunately, these lessons are more relevant to districts with large minority populations, where people are statistically more likely to interact with police than those in places serving majority-white populations. And one Propublica analysis found that, in recent years, young black males were at far greater risk of being killed by police than their white counterparts.

Research reveals just how warped Americans are in their perceptions of young men of color. Whites often perceive black people as superhuman, perhaps because, as a whole, they’ve hardly spent any time interacting with African Americans. What typically results are widely polarized opinions based on hyperbolic assumptions. Meanwhile, other research suggests that Americans see young black men as older and more culpable in criminal situations than they actually are.

Because police also entertain these stereotypes, Tolliver goes further than simply explaining to kids what they should do when stopped: “I tell them that if it’s broad daylight you should assert your rights. But if it’s late at night … then you have to be smart,” she said. “There are choices we all have to make, and my first choice is always safety.”

Debate surrounding New York’s controversial ‘stop-and-frisk' policy—a city-wide practice in which officers stop and question pedestrians at random and frisk them for weapons and contraband—exemplify this tension. Despite only making up around a quarter of New York City’s Metropolitan population, blacks are disproportionately more likely to be involved in an encounter with law enforcement. Since 2003, 54 percent on average of all stop-and-frisk victims were black, and 31 percent were Latino. Evidence suggests this is tantamount to racial profiling; almost 90 percent of the citizens who were stopped and frisked were completely innocent.

Thus, young men of color are more likely than other demographic groups to have dealt with law enforcement at some point, regardless of whether or not they committed wrongdoing. As a result, these communities develop polarized views about the police force. “Students sort of know that it’s different for some people than it will be for others, just based off the color of your skin,” Tolliver said, referring to the black and Latino students who’ve never been involved in crime but still face profiling. “But it’s sort of real for them to hear their colleagues say, ‘You know this has happened to me three times this year’ when they know that person is a good person and they sit next to them every day.”

Some argue that anyone stopped by police officers should immediately surrender and allow them to have their way. But that’s easier said than done, particularly for populations that have been subjected to countless encounters with aggressive policemen. Earlier this year, a veteran Los Angeles Police Department officer, Sunil Dutta, wrote a controversial piece in The Washington Post titled “I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.”  Detractors chided Dutta for blaming victims and lacking empathy for the experiences of the other side.

This isn’t to say that young men of color are free from guilt—far from it, in fact. Many of them grow up in communities law enforcement is the enemy, where repudiation of officers is ingrained into the culture . Yet to place the blame solely on them is a gross disservice. To quote The Atlantic’s Ta-Neshi Coates from his piece titled “The Case for Reparations”: “The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect.”

Tolliver argues that reality persists today: “These kids grew up in a culture where officers have come up and approached them, put them up against the wall and searched their pockets. Then, when they didn’t find anything, they walked away like it never happened … these kids are afraid.” And the tension isn’t limited to high-profile conflicts such as the Brown or Garner cases. Perhaps even more insidious are the repeated daily encounters: years of side-eyed glances, inquisitive questioning, “random” searches.

* * *

The current Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams has found himself on both sides of the coin. His experiences have run the gamut from a brutal encounter with police as a minor—when officers beat him in a precinct basement, repeatedly kicking him in the groin—to the 22 years he spent as an officer himself hoping to make a change from the inside out.

He highlighted his experience in a recent New York Times piece, “We Must Stop Police Abuse of Black Men,” where he explained the unwritten laws that act as guiding principles for many officers.

Hours after coming out of the police academy, I was told something as a new rookie officer: ‘You’d rather be tried by 12 jurors than carried by six pallbearers.’

One of my white fellow officers once told me that if he saw a white individual with a gun, he took extra care for himself and the individual. When he saw a black individual with a gun, he took care only for himself.

Adams, who co-founded the organization 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, believes that every school should offer a minimum of one class on how to deal with law enforcement. When Adams himself was a cop he taught similar courses to kids, focusing particularly on reminding them of their rights. “If there is one thing that’s coming out of this, it’s that we need formal training around interacting with law enforcement,” he said. “Right now we receive an elementary training through what we see on TV and that is not a reality.”

Adams takes a somewhat different approach, focusing primarily on solutions: “We’re not telling parents to tell their children to be a victim, but if someone does victimize them there is a manner in which to report it,” he said. “And you don’t do that in the midst of an officer taking action.” He says courses such as that offered by the NYCLU are often misguided: “Too often we teach them how to voice their concerns to say ‘well, at least I told them no,’” he said. “Get them to take the proper steps to get the proper results, which is for them to identify the officer who was disrespectful, and document the case.”

Much of the backlash from police officers in recent weeks has centered around their portrayal as villains in society; the Ferguson prosecutor has even blamed social media for helping tarnish cops’ image. And classes aimed at educating citizens about cops could just aggravate the problem. Former police officer Eugene O’Donnell has suggested that the literature provided in these NYCLU programs implies that cops are “public enemy No. 1,” claiming that a high school student would leave the session believing that police “are a fearful group to be avoided at all costs.”

Tolliver, however, was quick to dismiss these notions: “Some people say that the message is dangerous because it makes them afraid of the cops; well, a lot of them are already afraid. They have these experiences so often,” she said. “I want to make sure they are prepared. It’s not anti-police—it’s pro safety and accountability.”

These conversations have inevitably moved into households as well. Latoya Peterson, an African American mother with a one-year-old son, is already grappling with how her family will tackle the debacle when her child is older. She believes in the theory behind the workshops but doesn’t know if their mission is feasible. “I think in an ideal world this type of workshop exists as an explanation of your rights as a citizen,” she said. “But in the world we have now, telling our kids about how to conduct themselves when they are questioned by the police and conversations around what constitutes resisting and excessive force are necessary.”

“My hope is as a mother that my child never comes into contact with the police at all,” Peterson continued. “I’m struggling to find the balance, I don’t want my son to be killed over some bullshit, but living a life in fear is no life at all.”