No one can adequately deny that there are often problems with police abuse of power, from intimidation to unlawful searches. In an attempt to lessen incidents between police and students when the latter are stopped by the former, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) gave students at East Side Community High School a presentation on what to do when interacting with the police. Students were taught, if stopped, to remain silent and not consent to searches, as well as how to file a complaint if necessary.
While the knowledge of how to cooperate with law enforcement is, in theory, a useful skill to have as a youth, the NYCLU’s method of instruction is highly unfair, as it prejudices the population against the police in an age where law enforcement is often unpopular and controversial. The NYCLU presentation would have students believe that the police are antagonists, not people performing a necessary public function. Their instruction consists entirely of teaching how to make the policeman’s job more difficult and how to defend and even retaliate against officers; namely, by filing a complaint against an officer. The fact that the NYCLU teaches students how to lodge a complaint suggests that there will be necessary occasion to use it, thus presenting police forces as a potentially hostile group with the intent to do harm.
The intent behind the NYCLU’s student training is not necessarily malicious or meant as a detriment to the police; indeed, it is a benefit for students to know that they have rights, and the police are meant to protect and respect everyone’s rights. Furthermore, from incidents of brutality to illegal searches, there are all too many occasions of grievous misconduct on the part of some officers. Nevertheless, it is key to note that only some officers abuse their power; most officers do their job, and do it well. Thus, to teach the population how to interact with cops as if all of them intend to overstep their authority is unfair to a group that, overall, seeks to protect and serve the public good.
When the population, especially the youth, are led to believe that the police are a menace of some kind, it encourages avoidance; after all, why should one listen to or help the “bad guys,” when one can just keep distance from them, or run if they get close? Simple psychology would tell that, in the face of a supposed threat, the fight-or-flight instinct activates, prompting either a hostile or an avoidant reaction on the part of the person stopped by the police. Hence, the presentations done by the NYCLU are inherently harmful to police-civilian interactions; by essentially vilifying law enforcement, the NYCLU is only discouraging New York students from positive interaction when lawfully stopped by police.
If groups like the NYCLU want to teach students how to interact with police, it is only fair that the law enforcement side of the situation gets to express itself. As a response to the NYCLU’s presentation, the NYPD should head over to the high school and have a chance to teach how they think students should interact with police, or should collaborate with the NYCLU to make a joint presentation. The police presentation should be honest, recognizing the possibility that officers, not under the direct observation of a superior, may act outside their authority, and informing students that then would probably be an appropriate time to become defensive and later to file a complaint. They should emphasize that the police exist to enforce laws, not break them, and that penalties follow if laws are broken, but also that hindering an investigation carries its own penalties, as when students’ actions, as prescribed by the NYCLU, interfere with lawful police action. Ultimately, they should lay out the responsibilities and rights of both parties when they need to interact.
Training students, whether it is done by groups like the NYCLU or the NYPD, is not going to solve the underlying problems behind cases of police abuse of power, though the combined instruction, featuring the viewpoints of both sides, can perhaps help lessen the number of incidents. However, until the deeper problems of bias and profiling by police officers are addressed, which are extensive problems with no simple solution, law enforcement will continue to be perceived as the “bad guys,” regardless of whether or not it deserves such a moniker, and cooperation between them and civilians will be next to impossible.