A routine traffic stop in Allapattah quickly escalated Tuesday morning as a teen driver began to argue with the police.
“What red light?” he asked. “It was green when I saw it.”
A passenger chimed in and another teen in the back seat pulled out her phone to record the interaction, sticking it in the officer’s face. As tempers flared, the officer called for backup. Then, he asked everyone to step out of the car.
This traffic stop was just a practice drill, held in the Miami Jackson Senior High library with the driver and passengers seated in wooden chairs. But the potential for a routine traffic stop to go awry — endangering both the officer and the driver — is all too real.
The fatal shooting of a San Antonio police officer during a November traffic stop, video of a South Carolina state trooper firing at an unarmed man he pulled over for not wearing a seat belt, and images of a policeman in the same state shooting a driver in the back after stopping him for a broken taillight are just a few of the incidents that have roiled the country in recent years, exacerbating tensions between police and minority groups.
“There seems to be a growing concern and fear among citizens, especially young people, when they are engaged in encounters with the police,” said Maj. Hector Garcia, an officer with the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, which has partnered with the city police and a nonprofit called Do The Right Thing to bring the “Cop Stop Teen Training” to Miami-Dade schools. “This type of training provides them a foundation on what to expect.”
At Jackson High, police talked to a room full of 50 ninth-graders about how they should respond if they are pulled over. Claudia Bertrand, an officer with the schools police, advised students to stay calm, slowly move to the side of the road and keep their hands on the steering wheel where the officer can see them. The most important thing, she added, is to be polite.
“Don’t just assume every stop is because we’re out to get you,” she said, explaining that drivers can get pulled over even if they haven’t done anything wrong. Police might be looking for someone driving a similar car, she said, or stopping motorists to ask if they’ve noticed anything suspicious in the area.
The public needs to know that we are just like you guys. We’re just doing our job to keep the community safe.
Claudia Bertrand, officer with the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department
Bertrand also emphasized that, like motorists, police officers might also be nervous during a traffic stop. “We are human,” she said. “The public needs to know that we are just like you guys. We’re just doing our job to keep the community safe.”
For students, the event was also an opportunity to ask questions.
“Does the passenger have to show their license?” one student asked.
Another asked when it was appropriate for officers to draw their weapons.
A third student wanted to know if she could get a ticket for an infraction while she was learning to drive.
The training was the first of 17 planned for Miami-Dade high schools in 20 ZIP Codes identified by the school district as the areas where the majority of violent crimes impacting children occur. These are the same ZIP Codes where the district and other agencies plan to implement violence prevention programs as part of a data-driven initiative called Together for Children.
This is one step in trying to bridge the gap between youth in the urban core and police.
Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon
“This is one step in trying to bridge the gap between youth in the urban core and police,” said Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon, who represents an area in the northern part of the county where several of the ZIP Codes are located. “It can also begin to build a relationship where young people view law enforcement as allies rather than adversaries.”
But Gallon and Shirley Johnson, the president of the NAACP’s Miami-Dade branch, said they also think law enforcement could benefit from more training on how to interact with young people.
“So often as adults we may look at students in one way and it’s not the way the students are looking at us,” Johnson said. “We should be able to sit around the table and have some discussions and have each of us, the children and the adults, who are the police officers here, let them know who they really are as human beings.”
Yelitza Cedano, a public information officer with the Miami police, said the department has not changed its training for officers in light of the recent traffic stop incidents across the country and does not have specific protocols for how to handle teen drivers. “The training that we have in place is the training that we’ve always had in place,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is educate the community on what to do in those situations.”
Some police departments have made changes in how they educate their officers, said Geoffrey Alpert, a sociologist at the University of South Carolina who studies law enforcement training. Departments across the country have added more instruction on what’s called “procedural justice”— how officers treat civilians when responding to an incident — as well as how to better assess risk during a traffic stop.
Alpert said he thinks educating young people is a great idea, but agrees that the police could also benefit from a greater understanding of how to interact with teens. “The cop has to learn that these are children, they’re not responding as full adults,” he said.
For Nikolas Figeroa, a ninth-grade student who participated in the drills at Jackson High, the experience changed the way he views law enforcement. “They’re thinking about us in a good way,” he said, “trying to help us not get arrested and stuff like that.”