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.”