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A Law That Works or a Law That Hurts?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Randy R. Miller
July 14, 2015

Can public policy prevent police misconduct; the likes of what we have witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland, Ohio or New York City?

A group of New Jersey legislators believes that it can. However, they place the onus on the people rather than those who are sworn to uphold the law. In the state of New Jersey, lawmakers want to inject into the school curricula a course designed to teach students throughout the state how to engage with law enforcement, outlined in Bill A4130.

Currently up for debate in the state legislature, the bill would make a mandatory requirement, as part of the social studies core curriculum content standards, to provide students with instruction on speaking with police in the ways the state deemed appropriate. This would start at the beginning of the next school year and be instituted at all grade levels. According to the bill, the instruction shall provide students with information on the role and responsibilities of a law enforcement official in providing for public safety and an individual’s responsibilities to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official.

Unarmed Black Teenager - Miller

According to state legislator Ralph Caputo, the bill was inspired by the various episodes of police killings across the country. Caputo also said children need to learn how to speak and behave when being talked to by the police; proper behavior and respect by children at the same time protects police officers. Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, who is a co-sponsor, said the bill is about breaking down any misinformation, disinformation or mischaracterizations about the police that students may receive through the media. While those arguments are valid, there are other dynamics these legislators have either not considered or chose to ignore.

If the bill was inspired by current events, then it is logical to conclude that one of the intentions of this bill is specifically aimed at teaching young Black men, from an elementary age, how to interact with law enforcement when approached for any reason, whether legitimate or illegitimate. The assumption that this sort of topic can be taught by just anyone is very disconcerting.

Consider the ratios of White educators to students of color in urban school districts in municipalities like Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Camden City where the Black and Latino population is heavily concentrated. The schools there reflect those respective populations. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 85 percent of all teachers in New Jersey are White. White teachers do not share similar experiences with adult Blacks and Latinos in these municipalities, especially when it comes to encounters with the police. White teachers, no matter how well intentioned and well meaning they may be, are not necessarily the individuals who should be teaching students of color, in particular Black males, how to respond to being approached by a White police officer. Any public policy designed to educate the public on engaging with policy must consider this truth or else it is bad public policy.

A desire to bridge any gaps of miscommunication, misrepresentation and disrespect between the police and citizens, particularly people of color, is a worthwhile effort. However, any approach must be two-pronged. In addition to educating students, there must be additional education of law enforcement, at all levels, on how to interact properly with citizens.

Lastly, lawmakers must consider the overall message that passing this bill means for everyone. Schools are not only a place to learn information for practical application but they are also places of inquiry. Schools are places where students are encouraged to question everything about the world around them. Good teachers not only facilitate reflection and questioning from their students, but good teachers also force their students to challenge the status quo and even to challenge authority.

In school, students learn the purpose and practicality of a protest, a boycott, a march or any form of civil disobedience for their own rights and for the rights of their fellow man. Civil disobedience is rooted in lessons on challenging authority. A law requiring that students simply obey law enforcement in any given situation, even if authority goes against the rights of the public, sets a dangerous precedent for future action by police and policymakers that is not for the benefit of the public. The critical question: should public policy usurp the individual rights of the people, even if elected officials deem the inspiration a worthy justification?

On the debate floor, New Jersey legislators have a lot to think about when deciding if A4130 should become law. The inspiration for A4130 may have come from a sincere place of concern for American citizens, particularly members of the Black community. But what makes public policy work best is when it does not complicate an existing problem; particularly the problem it seeks to address.

Author: Randy R. Miller is an author and executive director of Manifesting Opportunities for Renewal and Empowerment; an education organization focused on empowering urban youth in the areas of academics and employment. He is currently a doctoral student at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey studying public affairs and community development. Randy can be reached via email at [email protected]

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