In the wake of several high-profile police shootings of black men, Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) filed a bill Wednesday that would require all ninth grade students in Texas to take a course on how to navigate interactions with law enforcement. However, not everyone believes the proposed course is a good idea.
After the unrest in Ferguson over the police shooting of Michael Brown, Whitmire was at a town hall meeting with some local community leaders as well as several black citizens. “An elder minister, at the end of the meeting, said that 'if we establish that we believe we're being profiled and we don't want any escalation of relations when the police pull over our young people, we need to do a better job of preparing our young people,'” recalled Whitmire, who is the chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “And that really stuck in my mind.”
According to a press release, the bill's proposed instruction would cover topics like police officers' responsibilities and roles, people's rights and duties when interacting with officers as well as how police questioning and detention work. It would also include information on how to file a complaint against an officer. Why start the program at 15? Because that's when kids start driving – and thus run the risk of getting pulled over by cops.
“As we expect more and more thorough training of our police officers and hold them accountable…we need to speak to what we expect of the public,” Whitmire explained. (He later named several measures that he said have increased, and will and should increase, police accountability, such as giving police training to manage people with mental health issues.) “Police are human. And by far most of them will do a good job, but you're going to run across on occasion, maybe more often than it should be, officers that seem abrupt, demanding and sometimes some of them will even be bullies. You cannot confront that police action on the street because you won't have a successful outcome.”
But Black Lives Matter: Houston organizer Ashton P. Woods doesn't support the bill, because he says – among other reasons – it puts the responsibility on residents, instead of cops, to try to build relationships. “You're creating a new class of people who are taught not to question authority when they need to be questioned, taught not to challenge rules and things that are unfair,” he said. “Creating a new class of people who will turn their heads when something really bad is happening, instead of reporting it, recording it and protesting it.”
Instead, Woods wants to see an after-school-style program that would teach children about their rights. “The difference between consenting for a search and then legal search of seizure, those things,” he explained, adding that he's previously worked on similar programs. “Recording the police when you interact with them, asking your questions. 'Am I being detained? Why are you stopping me?' You have a right to ask these questions. They're serving us. The model is to protect and serve, so why can't we use those questions without sounding like we're giving 'sass' back?…There are laws and you have to abide by those laws, even if they are unfair, but these police officers still have to treat you with humanity and dignity.”
He also objects to Whitmire's idea of, as Woods called it, “comply and complain later.” “It's coming from a place of non-blackness,” he explained. “It's coming from a place of whiteness, from people who don't experience having to look over their shoulder as they drive, as they walk down the street, as they leave a corner store with some Skittles and a tea...It's one thing to know your rights. It's another thing to politely comply with a police officer as he's taking your life."
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Whitmire said that he did not talk to BLM organizers about the bill, although he also added that a friend who supports BLM criticized the bill. However, Whitmire believes the bill has a broad base of support, from law enforcement to clergy members. He hopes that the curriculum will also be localized to fit the unique needs of different Texan communities, and thinks race has “got to be one of the first and last things you talk about.”
“I want to get community activists, people that can be mentors to these students, [who can] talk about their experiences in the past with the police,” Whitmire said. “I want the police to come talk to the students in a classroom setting, long before they see them on the streets.”
Yet because activists weren't involved in formulating the bill, Woods doesn't see them necessarily wanting to come and speak at these classes. “Why would I want to tell you my story when you just told me my story was irrelevant?” (Woods did testify at other hearings held in the legislative interim about improving Texas's criminal justice system, but not at hearings held by Whitmire's committee.)
Whitmire is confident the bill will be passed. “It's not going to solve certainly all of our problems, but at least Lord knows it's a first step,” he said. Meanwhile, Woods promised that BLM: Houston members will be in Austin this session, making their voices heard.