I have what I regard as a good working relationship with the Rutherford Police Department, and count its chief, John Russo, as a friend. I’ve hosted members of the Department twice at my university, and have been a guest of Chief Russo’s at the Department itself. I have no objection to police visits to schools per se, but I think some balance is in order: if cops are going to visit schools, civil libertarians from the ACLU or similar organizations should be visiting the same students in the same schools. A school unwilling to host civil libertarians should not be hosting cops. Far too many do.
People sometimes speak blithely and ignorantly about the need to “cooperate” with law enforcement. But the need for cooperation is at best half the story, and a distorted one. It’s an obvious, undeniable fact that our relationship with law enforcement is as likely to be adversarial as it is to be cooperative. When you call the police for help, your relationship to them is by definition cooperative. When you’re stopped involuntarily by them, your relationship is adversarial. Just as it makes no sense to call for help and refuse cooperation, it makes no sense to give your cooperation to someone who would (in a candid moment) be the first to say that he stands in an adversarial relationship to you.
To belabor what ought to be obvious: a police officer can legally lie to you, deceive you, intimidate you, manipulate you, and cherry pick evidence so as to give the impression of your guilt when you are innocent. He is also legally empowered to stop you, search you, seize you or your goods, and in extreme cases, kill you. She can hold anything you say against you, but has no obligation to remember or testify to anything you say that exculpates you. To deny, minimize, or evade these obvious facts, with children or anyone else, does everyone a disservice. But to give children a one-sided picture of law enforcement is precisely to deny the adversarial relationship that law enforcement stands with respect to anyone suspected or accused of a legal infraction.
No officer sent to a school can rule out the possibility that she will someday be obliged to arrest one of her “students.” That means that students bear a potentially adversarial relationship to someone they are taught to regard as a friend. But friends can’t arrest you. Nor do friends regard it as part of their job to manipulate or deceive you into admitting the elements of a crime during an interrogation. To imagine that police officers do otherwise is willfully to live in a fantasy world, and to demand that students enter and inhabit it. One has to wonder about the educational bona fides of the teachers, principals, and school superintendents who would make this demand of the children they’re tasked with educating. What is it that they think they’re accomplishing?
One can’t remedy the situation by teaching students the falsehood that all and only good people cooperate with the police, and all and only bad people refuse cooperation. Such claims are simple nonsense. Actually, a lot of evil people cooperate with the police, and a lot of good people adopt an adversarial posture toward them. It all depends on the situation–situations that children can’t be expected to understand. Why try to teach them what they can’t understand? Why pretend to teach them while bypassing their need to understand?
I don’t dispute that children should be taught respect for the police. They should be taught respect for teachers and shopkeepers, too. But just as they can’t be taught that teachers will never abuse them, or that shopkeepers will never cheat them, they can’t be taught that every cop can always be trusted all the time about everything. But that’s effectively what they are being taught in schools across the state and probably across the country, with virtually no push back from anyone.
What students most need to be taught is that they have rights no one can violate–whether law enforcement officer, teacher, priest, parent, peer, or stranger. That may be a hard lesson to teach. But a world in which it goes untaught is a world in which we set children up to be violated by anyone wearing the right uniform, speaking in the right tone of voice, mouthing the pious formulations by which the wary are disarmed. Nothing of value can be achieved by a mode of education that teaches students respect for badges, uniforms, and guns at the expense of the rights that are their due. If it’s not clear how to go about teaching them these lessons, maybe it’s past time to figure it out.
Thanks to Ross Levatter for comments on the first draft of this post.