N.J. schools would teach kids how to interact with police under proposed law

By Matt Friedman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on February 10, 2015

TRENTON — New Jersey schools would be required to teach students how they should interact with police officers under proposed legislation a sponsor says could protect both kids and cops.

The bill, (A4130), introduced last week, would require school districts to come up with instructions for students as part of their Social Studies Core Curriculum Content Standards that would include "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."

One of the sponsors, state Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), said the bill was inspired partly by recent incidents of police shootings around the country, including the death of Michael Brown in Ferugson, Mo.

"Kids have to learn how to behave when they're being investigated or talked to, because they could put themselves in jeopardy," Caputo said. "It's also a good effort to protect the police. Kids have to recognize their authority when they're being questioned and how to conduct themselves."

Caputo said the legislation takes no sides as to who was right and wrong in the incidents. It just seeks to stop altercations before they start.

"When a kid jumps out of a car, he may appear to be threatening but he's not - he just may not understand what those protocols are," Caputo said.

In New York City, a high school principal brought New York Civil Liberties Union representatives into the classroom to coach kids on what to do. The group instructed students to be polite and keep their hands visible, according to reports, as well as on their constitutional rights. And school officials in Linwood, in south Jersey, told the Press of Atlantic City last month that they were considering how to teach students safe interaction with police.

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), a co-sponsor, said that the teaching could "break down any misconceptions that children might have from either misinformation or just the wrong portrayal of police officers through media."

Spencer is a municipal prosecutor in Newark and has a brother on the city's police force, as well as another who is a retired from the force.

"Not every police officer is bad. Not every police officer is necessarily good. However, there are certain things that you should and should not do when you encounter the police that will not cause a situation to escalate into something that could become dangerous for either person involved," she said.

Although the legislation leaves it up to the district to come up with the curriculum, which would be taught from elementary through high school, it should be characterized by "mutual cooperation and respect."

Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, said he agrees with the idea behind the bill, though he would like to know more about how it would be implemented.

"I kind of wish they'd have reached out to us in the beginning," Colligan said. "I think any dialogue is positive dialogue. I'd be all for it as long as it's a well-rounded class and people understand some of the limitations that we have when we're dealing with a deadly force situation ... It's usually time. People seem to think we have this 10 minute period to think out what we're going to do when you're given that short amount of time and short distance."

Ari Rosmarin, public policy director for the New Jersey ACLU, said the legislation is missing a critical component.

"The bill calls for education on young peoples' roles and responsibilities, but it's missing the third R: rights. The classroom is the appropriate place for a know-your-rights education," Rosmarin said. "Recent events make a strong case for New Jersey's young people being made aware of their rights and how to protect them when interacting with the police."

Rosmarin said his group hopes to work with the sponsor to include those provisions, and that "we hope to see officers receive equally robust training about interacting with young people in New Jersey's community."

The chief sponsor of the bill, Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), did not respond to requests for comment. The measure has nine sponsors in total, seven from Essex County and two from Passaic County.

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