Why do we train kids how to avoid being hurt by cops?

Posted: July 22, 2014

HE GETS PULLED over by police almost every month on his way to Army Reserve duty, the black man says.

Each time, he rolls his window down, hands over his license and politely asks what he did wrong.

He knows things can go badly very quickly. So he "yes-sirs" his way through the stop.

If you're rolling your eyes and thinking, "Here she goes again, whining about just another black or brown man in Philadelphia being targeted by police," you're wrong.

This was Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, sharing his experiences with police with a group of reporters during a news conference last week.

Williams had called the conference to announce the findings of a high-profile and controversial stop-and-frisk case. Turns out the D.A. and the young man in the middle of that case, Darrin Manning, have something in common. They both get stopped by police for little or no reason.

In January, Manning, 16, said his genitals were ruptured by a female police officer after being stopped on his way to a high-school basketball game. The case sparked outrage, and the D.A. convened a grand jury to investigate the alleged assault.

Last week, Williams announced that the grand jury exonerated police and concluded that there was no medical evidence that Manning's genitals were injured by a female officer during the incident. All charges but resisting arrest were dropped. Without admitting guilt, Manning signed an agreement with the court that allowed for the charge to eventually be dropped.

The 62-page report, which relied on "credible testimony from multiple witnesses," presented seven findings. But I couldn't get past the first.

It read, in part: "It was understandable for Student #1 [Manning] to believe he should not be stopped since he had not committed any criminal behavior."

And right there is what bothered me since the start of this he-said-they-said case. Manning said cops scared him and his teammates, so they ran. Cops said the group looked suspicious. It's what bothers me in most of the cases that start with the looming questions of who is stopped, and why.

I asked Williams: If the grand jury conceded that it was understandable for Manning to think he hadn't done anything to be stopped, then what - if any - reasonable expectation should other law-abiding Philadelphians have?

Williams said there were entire law-school courses dedicated to the topic. He whipped out a copy of the Constitution, and rattled off various case laws that set up standards for police stops.

He then shared experiences with police that for an oh-so-fleeting moment made me want to give the guy a hug.

And then he said: "We have to take time to talk to kids about how to act if they do come in contact with police . . . and how to behave."

I understand where he's coming from: It's never a good idea to mouth off to a person with a badge and a gun. But this "we gotta teach our youth how to act like good boys and girls" falls flat for me. It sounds too much like what we used to tell young women when we wanted to train them how not to be raped. It's putting the responsibility of not being harmed on the potential victim.

Here's an idea: Why don't we talk to police officers about their behavior? Why are they the criminal-justice model and everyone else has to just deal with it? Say yes sir, no sir. And by God, don't ask why you're being stopped or arrested, because nothing good will come of it.

The Manning case resonated with so many because it's an ongoing reality for people of color across the country. According to a report by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, of the 215,000 stop-and-frisks in 2012, 45 percent were without legal justification. Nearly 80 percent of the stops were of African-Americans and Latinos. Just last week in New York City, a man died after police put him in an unlawful chokehold.

I've lost count of the number of parents who've told me that way before they talk "birds and bees" with their kids, they sit them down and talk to them about how to behave around cops so that they come home alive. Apparently that lesson is as relevant to a black kid walking down a Philadelphia street as it is to the black district attorney driving down the highway to Reserve training. "My goal every day is to get home," Williams said.

Something isn't right here.

During the news conference, Williams kept saying that a tragedy had been avoided - and he was partly right. Manning, who the grand jury concluded had resisted arrest, could have been hurt worse, or killed. Same for the cops.

But the bigger tragedy is this: Why are we training black and brown kids how to walk down the street so they won't be hurt by police? Why, instead, don't we train police officers not to hurt?

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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