“How to not get shot by police” could become the newest US high-school class

A necessary lesson.
A necessary lesson.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Interactions with the police in the US can be so deadly that lawmakers want schools to teach kids how to interact safely with officers.

In 2016, at least 1,092 people were killed by police in the US, and 169 of them were unarmed, according to a count by The Guardian. Police chiefs across the country say they are working to figure out ways to reduce the numbers, but state legislatures are looking at the issue from another perspective.

A new bill in Texas, passed by the state’s Senate, would require that high schools educate students on how to conduct themselves during traffic stops and other encounters with police. It also mandates that such instruction in drivers’ education courses, and that officers undergo similar training.

Students would be taught about officers’ responsibilities, their own rights as citizens, “proper behavior” during encounters, and how to file a complaint, the bill says.

The bill was authored by two Democrats, but it has bipartisan support. “I think this is one of the more important bills that we will pass out this session because there’s no question in my mind it will save altercations, which could save injury, which could save lives,” said Dan Patrick, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

After all, six of those who were shot by police in the US while unarmed in 2016 were under 18, and 36 were between 18 and 24.

Texas is not the only state to consider such measures. A similar bill, introduced after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, was proposed in New Jersey, but failed in committee.

In Illinois, a new law requires that all drivers’ ed courses include instructions on what to do in a traffic stop—but it was criticized for omitting instruction on drivers’ rights. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has signed a bill similar to the Illinois one, and other measures are being considered in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Rhode Island. In West Virginia, a new bill that requires schools to have drug-abuse prevention programs also includes a police-interaction element.

Organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, Jack and Jill of America and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers also visit schools with presentations and workshops on police-youth interaction, and some have been doing so for years. 

It’s hard to say whether killings by US police officers have increased or decreased in recent years—the patchy data that we do have suggests that they’ve held steady or risen somewhat.

But following the unrest in Ferguson—and the increased use of phone cameras to document deadly incidents—the overall American public has developed a heightened awareness of how often encounters with police turn volatile.

It’s something its racial and ethnic minorities have long experienced. Killings by police disproportionately affect people of color, and some parents in Texas raise this as a potential issue for the new curriculum. “My black son interacting with police would be different than another person, a typical white person,” one mom told The Texas Tribune. 

That same mom suggested that the bulk of the responsibility for avoiding unnecessary deaths should fall on the police, not on drivers.