For generations, African-American parents have borne a special burden in mentoring their teenage children as they begin driving, having to say, be calm and extra polite when stopped by the police, and do nothing unexpected that could get you killed.
It’s horrifying that any parent has to have that conversation. But racial profiling by the police is a reality, and in these days of repeated and sometimes fatal highway confrontations, captured by cellphone videos, such warnings can be a matter of life and death.
Delegate Jeion Ward of the Virginia General Assembly is an African-American grandmother who has long heard her husband and three grown sons pass on sage guidance to the younger generation about what to do if stopped. When Ms. Ward heard her 39-year-old son telling her 17-year-old grandson the facts of real life for traffic stops, her concern grew and it ultimately resulted in a simple bill that was enacted into law this week.
Her measure requires that driver’s education courses for public schools specifically teach how to behave and interact with police officers in traffic stops. Illinois has enacted a similar measure, and Ms. Ward has heard from a half-dozen other states where lawmakers are considering her approach. The Virginia protocol is to be detailed after consultations involving motor vehicle, education and police officials.
Ms. Ward, with 14 years in the legislature, made no allusions to the current tensions between the police and black communities in her measure. But she doesn’t hide her inspiration. “My grandbaby!” she explained. “His name is Jermel but I call him the Grand Prince,” she said, laughing. “We gave him what we call The Talk. Other families, it may be about alcohol and drugs, but for us it’s about driving, and we decided it’s time to give him The Talk. I mean, what might happen to him? He can look so immature and be so silly,” she noted with affection.
It is absurd that states need to teach drivers how not to be killed by public servants, but unfortunately, the woeful experience of the black community makes Ms. Ward’s effort worthwhile. Her heartfelt summary of the new law’s lesson for drivers is: “Please don’t run; oh please don’t run. It’s so much in the news lately.”
Obviously, the police need lessons — and tougher training, discipline and oversight. At least the new Illinois law requires police officers to treat drivers with “dignity and respect” and provide their names and badge numbers when requested. In North Carolina, where a similar driver’s ed bill is under consideration, a police accountability group, SAFE Coalition NC, has called for a companion measure so “police officers can understand to control their emotions.” But that’s far from enough.
Ms. Ward said local police departments in her district in Hampton, Va., said they have traffic stop behavior rules for officers. “One chief said the driver is frightened when pulled over, but the officer approaching the car is just as frightened,” she said. “Of course, he has a gun.”