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Black Lives balks as N.J. lawmaker wants to legislate 'The Talk'

"Look, I'm just trying to save lives," says Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, a co-sponsor. Black Lives Matter fears her bill will justify scapegoating of young people in police brutality incidents.

Protesters carry an image of Philando Castile as they march on Sunday, June 18, 2017, in St. Anthony, Minn., after the acquittal of the local police officer who shot Castile during a traffic stop.
Protesters carry an image of Philando Castile as they march on Sunday, June 18, 2017, in St. Anthony, Minn., after the acquittal of the local police officer who shot Castile during a traffic stop.Read moreCourtney Pedroza / Star Tribune via AP

A bill passed unanimously last month by the New Jersey Assembly that would require schools to teach young people how to properly interact with police and avert confrontations mirrors "The Talk" that many African Americans say they often have with their children, according to a sponsor of the legislation.

But the effort is drawing resistance from Black Lives Matter.

The group and other critics fear that the bill, approved during a time of high-profile police-involved shootings and the failed prosecutions of many of the officers involved, would do little more than create a scapegoat for police brutality.

"Look, I'm just trying to save lives," said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), co-sponsor, of the motivation behind Assembly bill A-1114, which passed in a 76-0 vote on June 22.

Alexis Miller, lead organizer for the Paterson, N.J., chapter of Black Lives Matter, said the group is wary of the bill's concept.  Black Lives Matter is calling for a no vote when the legislation reaches the Senate.

She said the bill ultimately places the onus of police interactions squarely on citizens while allowing "police to continue to evade accountability."  Black Lives Matter is urging its supporters to sign a petition against the legislation and to call their state senators to discourage them from approving it.

"This bill is clearly designed to create a scapegoat for police brutality, and that scapegoat is New Jersey's children," Miller said. "It does nothing to address the laws already in place that protect the immense power of police departments.  Students … children are expected to master the idea of respectability politics in order to protect themselves from officers."

Oliver, who is African American, said "The Talk" has long been a private conversation that many black parents have had with their children, especially as the children become old enough to begin driving and may have their first interactions with police in traffic stops.

"A lot of times kids want to know if they get stopped if they have the right to call their parents," Oliver said. "Can the police search their car? Do they have to get out of the car? … They have questions like these with the backdrop of being black and interacting with police. There may be a lot of fear instilled in them, a lot of potential panic."

Bringing that discussion into the schools and out into the open may ultimately better prepare children of all races and ethnicities for such encounters, she said.

"This is not a bill to teach kids to be subservient to police but to empower children, and ultimately adults, about their rights and their role in interacting with law enforcement," Oliver said. "I think young people need to have their consciousness raised about these issues."

Akin Olla, organizer of the Tubman-Hampton Collective, based in New Brunswick, said the bill "continues to allow police to evade accountability" and is "not a means of stemming police brutality."

Olla was among about 75 people who protested against the bill at the Statehouse on Friday.

"We want the public to really look at this bill and see it for what it is," Olla said. "If it does nothing beyond a civics lesson [about making] the streets safer for everyone, it's pointless."

Not until activists criticized the bill as previously written was a new component added that would require that students also be taught about their rights when interacting with officers.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it worked with Oliver and other legislators to recast the original version of the bill, introduced in 2016, that would have required only that children be taught about the "role and responsibilities of law enforcement in providing public safety" and an "individual's responsibilities to comply with a directive" from police.  The new version would require that students be taught about the officer's responsibility and proper behavior, their own rights as citizens, and how to file a complaint, if necessary.

"The bill has come a long way in its current form from where it was," said Portia Allen-Kyle, a lawyer for the ACLU's New Jersey office in Newark. "As it stands now, we feel that there is an opportunity here to really empower students and educate them about their rights."

Allen-Kyle said the agency will keep close tabs on how the curriculum is developed by a specially appointed committee if the bill is signed into law.

Dan Keashen, a spokesman for Camden County Police, who patrol the city of Camden, said the department was reviewing the bill, but that officers already participate in programs to "create positive bonds" with the community. Officers visit classrooms, hold K-9 demonstrations, and host pop-up barbecues.

"We are consistently looking for ways to create a greater dialogue with the community and demonstrate our role as peacekeepers rather than warriors," Keashen said.

The vote in the Assembly came a week after Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter in the July 2016 fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop after the motorist informed the police officer he possessed an open-carry permit for a gun he was carrying.  The shooting, which occurred within seven seconds of Castile's having informed the policeman about the gun, was captured on cellphone video by the victim's girlfriend, who was in the car with her 4-year-old daughter.

According to the Washington Post, 963 people were killed by police in the United States in 2016, down from 991 in 2015. On Saturday, in a mid-year report, the Post said there were 492 police-involved killings in the first six months of this year.

Of those killed in 2016, 169 were unarmed civilians, six were under age 18, and 36 of them were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the ACLU.

There were also 135 police officers killed in the line of duty last year, the most on-the-job officer fatalities in five years, according to an analysis by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Law enforcement officials and legislators across the country are looking into ways to work with communities to try to stem the tide of bloodshed.

Texas recently enacted a measure to require high school students, as part of their driver's education classes, to learn how to conduct themselves during a traffic stop. Illinois and Virginia have passed legislation mandating that driver's ed courses for all ages include that information. Mississippi, North Carolina, and Rhode Island are considering similar laws.

Oliver said the number of police-involved shootings has created mistrust of police in communities across the nation, and her bill, which must also pass in the Senate and be signed by the governor to become law, is meant to "help rebuild trust in police while simultaneously empowering the communities they serve."

Oliver said current programs that visit schools and encourage police and youth interaction — sponsored by organizations such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, and Jack and Jill of America, a service group formed during the Great Depression to  strengthen African American children — have helped, but are not enough.

Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association said his organization supports the Oliver legislation and calls it "a good policy that can benefit everyone."

"There is no training … no learning about something that can't be a benefit to everyone involved," Colligan said. "I think something like this provides everyone with the opportunity to look at, and perhaps understand, the situation from an entirely different perspective."