For law enforcement personnel, training is a crucial aspect of ongoing professional development. New technology, recertification of core skills, and changes within the community or organization (such as an increase in mental health-related calls or changes to use-of-force policy) are just three examples for which an officer might attend in-service in a given year. In all, officers can expect to spend between twenty and forty hours performing annual training exercises, depending on state, local, and departmental regulations and policies.
Now, certain civilians — particularly young ones — can expect to do some law enforcement training of their own. Texas, New Jersey, and other US states either have passed or are considering laws mandating interaction instruction: courses and lesson modules designed to help grade-schoolers, teenagers, and new drivers to understand the role of law enforcement, and to receive instruction on the right and wrong ways to approach police encounters in various contexts.
Unsurprisingly, a fair amount of controversy and no shortage of varying viewpoints surround this growing trend. Proponents say the courses will build understanding between law enforcement and the public they serve, acquaint citizens with their rights, dispel commonly held myths about law enforcement, and even curb unnecessary violence. Detractors, on the other hand, claim such instruction places blame for law enforcement misbehavior on the populace and unnecessarily supplants the role parents play in teaching their children about law enforcement interaction.
Regardless of controversy, it is fair to assume more states will adopt the practice if the laws in effect create positive outcomes. This makes awareness of the trend important for law enforcement organizations in every state.
Exploring the breadth, depth of law enforcement interaction training laws in the U.S.
While police have long led education programs to build rapport and understanding with the community, states have only recently begun to mandate public law enforcement education programs aimed specifically at youth. With few established best practices to study, lawmakers have had ample room to experiment with structure and desired outcomes. Because of this, however, one state’s law enforcement education program may bear little resemblance to that mandated by legislation introduced in another.
However, similarities can still be drawn between certain programs. Texas and New Jersey, for instance, have passed or begun the process of passing the largest-scale, most comprehensive laws on the matter thus far. Signed into law in June 2017, Texas’s SB 30 requires the state’s Board of Education and Commission on Law Enforcement to collaborate (PDF) on programs that educate all high school students and new drivers on several important aspects of law enforcement, including:
- The duties and responsibilities of law enforcement officers and organizations;
- A person’s rights concerning interactions with peace officers during traffic stops and other interactions;
- Proper behavior for both parties, and the consequences a civilian or officer might face if they fail to meet those standards; and
- How and where to file complaints and compliments following law enforcement interactions.
SB 30 also requires law enforcement officers to undergo “civilian interaction training” that covers many of the same topics from the officer’s perspective, including the proper attitude to take during traffic stops and other interactions, as well as information on the rights civilians hold during these encounters.
Meanwhile, New Jersey’s A1114, which unanimously passed assembly and awaits discussion by the state’s senate, would require a committee to build “instruction on interacting with law enforcement in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect” into the state’s social studies curriculum. The training, by legislative amendment to A1114, would also cover “the rights of individuals when interacting with a law enforcement official.” Under the proposed plan, students in kindergarten through grade four would receive appropriately lighter training, while fifth- to twelfth-graders would receive “more rigorous instruction.”
Other state laws take a narrower approach on the interaction instruction. Since most citizens primarily interact with officers through traffic stops — and since the laws behind these encounters are perhaps more situationally-dependent than others — rules mandating interaction instruction during driver’s education have become increasingly popular. Illinois’s HB6131, for example, expands upon information previously found in the state’s driver’s manual, requiring public and private driving schools to teach lessons on appropriate behavior during traffic stops. Virginia’s HB 2290 and Louisiana’s HB241 take a similar approach, with the latter requiring a “pre-license training course relative to managing a routine traffic stop,” alongside other educational courses.
In total, eight or more states have passed or are actively weighing similar legislation. All but Texas and New Jersey focus solely on appropriate interaction with law enforcement during traffic stops. Most include information on the driver’s rights during a stop.
Controversy abounds on both sides of interaction laws
As mentioned, these laws have drawn a measure of controversy from law enforcement and civilians alike. This is especially true for Texas’s SB 30 and New Jersey’s A1114, the two broadest bills in terms of focus and time spent learning. While it is hard to criticize a course that could ostensibly improve driver and officer safety during a highly common, potentially dangerous interaction like a traffic stop, requirements covering the broader scope of law enforcement interaction carry certain practical and political implications worth examining.
Perhaps the most commonly raised concern goes as follows: teaching civilians the right way to interact with police constitutes an implicit form of “victim blaming” by putting the behavioral onus on civilians instead of misbehaving police. According to some detractors, the bills — many introduced at a time of high tension between law enforcement and the public — carry the implication of placing the blame on the public.
Others raise the idea of sensitivity. If a student has seen a parent, “taken away by police or ICE agents,” as one source in an NBC News article opines, they may not be receptive to an officer “explaining how to be respectful.” This could be of particular concern in states like Texas, where illegal immigration activity frequently originates and children born to undocumented individuals in the states sometimes stay behind with trusted friends and family members after their parents are deported.
Considering this, it should be noted that both A1114 and SB 30 mandate lessons that go beyond simple respect, with the majority also providing information on citizens’ rights. The justice system can be difficult for the public to understand, and misconceptions of basic legal concepts abound. A common in-joke in many police stations is the misunderstanding citizens have about entrapment, and even Miranda warnings can cause “profoundly mistaken beliefs,” according to psychology professor Richard Rogers. Courses that provide a concrete understanding of certain rights and legal principles at a young age — before misinformation from peers, online sources, and popular media take hold — could benefit both law enforcement and citizens. If one examines the laws and determines they are not sources of indoctrination or a case of the state overstepping into education, they might find real value in this aspect of the instruction.
Other criticisms of interaction laws come from behind the badge. In Texas, SB 30 dictates that police officers must take a course on traffic stop protocol, citizen rights, and appropriate decorum — lessons that are covered extensively from the first day of academy; some districts mandate verbal training techniques like de-escalation and Verbal Judo. Here, one hopes provisions requiring law enforcement organizations at the state level to contribute to lesson planning (seen in Texas and New Jersey, among other states) may help combat the issue.
Should interaction courses teach the “right” attitude?
Similar ideas apply to critics claiming interactive education courses diminish the role parents play in teaching their children about law enforcement. While parents certainly should have a say, an authoritative source in the classroom or driver’s education course may dispel misconceptions and eliminate familial biases against law enforcement due to previous arrests or run-ins with officers.
A tangible reminder to be respectful might save individuals some unnecessary trouble and departments from dealing with superfluous charges and even unnecessary force cases. There is little question that tensions between law enforcement and their public are high, and that — on the broader sociopolitical spectrum — the tendency to dismiss the other side as unworthy of human compassion is about as strong as it has ever been. In this sense, courses that explain the importance of compliance to high school students and basic politeness to both sides go hand-in-hand with the law enforcement industry’s larger push for de-escalation and active listening. Interactive courses may give the next generation of taxpayers a more realistic, balanced view of the law enforcement professionals who serve them.
In today’s policing climate, it is not hard to imagine law enforcement interaction courses gaining more traction among state lawmakers. Considering the number that have come to fruition in the last two years alone, it is almost a given that more states will soon adopt similar measures.
We should largely consider these measures a good thing. A course that emphasizes behavior, dispels myths, and informs students of their rights should ultimately lead to a better-informed populace and more quality interactions between law enforcement and the public. Although such programs will always have detractors (and while those opponents will always play an important role in the process, as they did when they pushed to have information on citizen rights included in Illinois’s HB6131), there’s something to be said for any program that encourages civility and understanding. As many officers attest, there is a marked difference between a citizen who thinks they know their rights and one who actually does. Include training designed to build practical understanding, and everyone will benefit.