Get Home Alive: Black Families Grapple With Teaching Kids How to De-Escalate Police Encounters

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Miesha Stokely was driving home from her night-shift job as a labor and delivery nurse when she got into a fender bender in her BMW. Stokely, who is Black, and the white driver she had rear-ended agreed to pull into a nearby gas station, exchange insurance information and call the police.

But when two officers from the Wallkill, New York police department arrived, the officer in charge seemed more interested in questioning Stokely about her expensive car — and how she had gotten the police parking plaque she had hanging in its window. 

Stokely’s father is a Westchester County Department of Corrections officer and her mother is a detective with the Mount Vernon Police Department. On that November day in 2018, Stokely said she told the officer that the Mount Vernon police commissioner had given her the police plaque for her work in the community, including the community events she hosts at the bakery she runs with her mother.

But Stokely said the officer seemed to think she was impersonating a police officer. And although Stokely had grown up around police all her life, she had also seen too many videos of routine traffic stops that turned deadly for Black people. 

"I was afraid. I was like, this is not going the way that it should be, and I’m already shaken up from the accident," Stokely told Inside Edition Digital. "I saw that it was escalating. I didn't want any problems. That's why I called my dad— I needed someone else there with me."

Miesha Stokely
Miesha Stokely

Her father, Damon Jones, remembers being dismayed at that frantic call, but not surprised. Jones said Black parents have always grappled with how to keep their kids safe when it comes to dealing with police — even when they work in law enforcement themselves.  

"For generations and generations, they’ve called it 'the talk,'" Jones told Inside Edition Digital. "Professionally, we call it 'how to survive a police confrontation.' It's something that you know you need to have with your child or with your loved ones when they go outside. It's really unfortunate, but that is the norm of being Black in America."

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so many others at the hands of police have left many Black people with the real fear that a routine traffic stop or a minor infraction could result in their deaths. 

Overall, Black adults are about five times more likely than their white peers to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and 84% of Black adults say Black people are treated less fairly when dealing with police. 

Faced with that reality, many Black parents sit their children down, often when they’re very young, and teach them that while it isn't fair, others may see them as a threat just because of the color of their skin. With that knowledge comes this one: that the burden of de-escalating a situation with a police officer may fall on their shoulders someday— and their lives could depend on how they react. 

"For me, the talk started at 5 and 6," Lincoln Blades, a Black journalist who writes about police brutality, told Inside Edition Digital. "For some people, it's 10 and 11. But pretty much by the time you're a pre-teen, you know what time it is, right? You know, okay, if I get stopped, it's 'Sir, yes, sir. It's yes, ma'am.' You keep your hands where everyone can see. You take your hoodie off. You turn your music down."

The Wallkill police officer ultimately let Stokely go after demanding she call the Mount Vernon police commissioner in front of him to confirm the plaque was hers. The Wallkill Police Department did not respond to Inside Edition Digital’s request for comment on the incident. 

But although her encounter with the police ended there, Stokely still felt shaken about what could have happened. “If I would have gotten more agitated and upset, it probably would have turned out differently,” she said. 

And what is it like to live with that knowledge? "Exhausting," Stokely said. "It’s very exhausting and it’s very scary."

Uneven Training

Police officers are trained on what’s called the use of force continuum, gradually escalating their own physical response based on the situation. De-escalation training teaches officers how to use communication skills to delay, defuse or take the pressure off a situation, which can lead to a less forceful or violent outcome. That "verbal judo," as Jones calls it, helps officers talk a situation down before pulling out a gun or Taser. 

While most law enforcement agencies view the responsibility of de-escalating a situation as a police officer’s, many on the ground lack the training they need to be able to do so effectively. Only 16 states require de-escalation training for police officers, according to an analysis by Apex Officer, a company that designs VR police training simulations. Even those police departments that do include de-escalation training don’t always spend much time on it. 

For example, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) found that the median amount of time the 204 police departments it surveyed spent on de-escalation training for recruits was just eight hours, compared to a median of 60 hours for firearms training and a median of 40 hours for constitutional law and legal training. De-escalation training made up just 8% of in-service hours, the 2017 survey found. And that simply isn’t enough, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, who believes that "if you're in policing, everybody should get de-escalation training."

But how each department trains its officers is largely up to its leadership, which makes large-scale change a challenge. There are more than 12,000 local police departments and more than 3,000 sheriff’s departments in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, as well as law enforcement organizations that serve universities, companies and more. 

"When people say, 'Why did that police officer shoot the person?' the answer is usually the same, it's because that's the training that they received," Wexler told Inside Edition Digital. "There's no way of getting to 18,000 police departments simultaneously. They're not connected, we have no national police organization, and we have no way of standardizing training policy."

Following the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, "people started talking about de-escalation," Wexler explained. "But no one really operationalized. It became a buzzword. 'Well, the officer should have de-escalated that situation.' Well, what does that mean?"

So Wexler and his team at PERF decided to find out. Their work took them to places where police officers don’t routinely carry guns, including Scotland and England. They examined how officers in those countries use communication, critical decision-making models and de-escalation techniques to defuse situations in which people have knives, bricks or other weapons or are experiencing mental health crises. 

That research, plus input from hundreds of police professionals across the country, ultimately led to the creation of PERF’s ICAT training program, which aims to give officers "the tools, skills, and options they need to successfully and safely defuse a range of critical incidents."

So far, more than 70 police departments have made ICAT part of their training program. Wexler and his team would like to see de-escalation training a mandatory part of policing programs across the country. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives last month, does include provisions to accredit police departments, strengthen training best practices and require that officers use de-escalation tactics before engaging with deadly force. But the bill has yet to be taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate. 

"There's a challenge in the policing world of communicating best practices. There is no one entity that does this, so it's left to organizations like ours and others to do research and to show the results," Wexler said. 

"At the end of the day, it's all about the sanctity of human life," he added. "How do you go into these confrontational encounters in a way that is safe for the police officer and safe for the person that they're encountering, so that everybody goes home safely at night? That's the objective."

Learning How to Survive

In the absence of mandatory de-escalation training for police, Black activists have trained civilians in how to defuse and survive encounters with police. 

Djibril Toure, an activist and member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, estimates he has led more than 1,000 know-your-rights workshops for teens and adults at colleges, universities and nonprofits over the past 20 years. 

Toure, 48, said he was moved to do this work after the shooting of Amadou Diallo by police in New York City in 1999. Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Toure said, he didn’t encounter aggressive policing. But when he returned to live in the city after graduating from Cornell University in the early 2000s, things had changed. He remembers being pulled over while riding in a taxi with friends by undercover police officers who ordered them all put their hands on the roof. 

"Then I had incidents in Brooklyn where I would be just walking down the street, and undercover officers would just pull over and jump out of the car, and act like it was the Wild West or something," Toure told Inside Edition Digital. "I recognized that if it was happening to me, it was probably happening to other people, and I shifted my activism towards that."

Toure and other activists from a variety of organizations and backgrounds eventually formed the Coalition Against Police Brutality. From there, they started holding know-your-rights workshops and launched CopWatch, a project which focuses on documenting police abuse and reforming police departments. 

Toure teaches the teens who attend his workshops how to respectfully ask police what the nature of the encounter is, including why they are being stopped, whether they’re under arrest or if they’re free to go. That clarity is the first step, he said. 

"A lot of times when you're having an encounter, you don't know exactly what the situation is. You don't know if you're being ordered to do something, or if you're just being requested," Toure explained. "Police officers are sort of taught to use their influence to tell people what to do, and they sort of suggest things that they may not have the right to do. For instance, I've seen cops tell people to stop videotaping, and the person is legally within their right to videotape whatever the officer is doing."

Starting that training when people are young is crucial, Toure said, because misconduct can also start at a young age. A report released last month by the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board found that 64% of the civilian complaints against New York City police officers were filed by or on behalf of young Black people between the ages of 8 and 18. 

And while it’s the adult officer’s responsibility to de-escalate the situation, "the way that we look at it is, it's like a survival tactic," he explained. "The advice that we're offering people is so that they can honestly survive these situations, and so that the change that we want can happen over time."

Jones, who also serves as the New York representative for Blacks in Law Enforcement of America (BLEA), agrees. His group of Black police professionals put out its own guide for civilians entitled, "How To Survive a Police Confrontation: A Citizen’s Plan For Action."

"It's unfortunate we have to teach kids and adults how to react in having police contact because of the fact that for some reason, and we're still trying to figure out why, de-escalation policies are really not taught to police officers," Jones said. "So the best way to do it is to try to teach civilians and try to teach young kids how to survive, how to get home safely, and then have a plan of action to address it if they feel that their rights have been violated."

Black law enforcement officers aren’t exempt from those encounters, either, Jones said. He avoids carrying his gun in his car in case he is pulled over by police, he said, something that has happened many times. 

"I don't carry my gun, and I tell my wife, 'Don't carry your weapon, either,'" Jones said. "The best thing we can do if we see something happen is to make a phone call. I'm not pulling out my weapon because I'll be the one getting shot first."

How to react when a gun is pointed in your face isn’t something civilian training can necessarily prepare you for either, Blades said. The journalist said he was 16 years old in 1999 when police in Toronto pulled guns on him and three of his friends as they walked down the street one night. 

"My question would be: what part of the de-escalation training class would be teaching a 16-year-old boy how to react with a gun in your face? I'm not a professional. I wasn't a soldier. I wasn't a police officer. I didn't sign up to have guns in my face," Blades, 37, said. "It's up to a police officer to be calm in that situation."

"I just feel like asking citizens and civilians to be experts at the thing that the police are supposed to be experts at is actually a misframing of what the real issue is," he added. "At what point is it it the police’s responsibility to ensure that this conversation, that this interaction, doesn't escalate out of control?"

Artist Lauryn Whitney and her son.
Lauryn Whitney

"When Did My Baby Become a Threat to You?"

The fear that a Black person’s life could end because of a routine police encounter is why artist Lauryn Whitney wept when she first found out she was pregnant with a boy in 2016.  

"It felt like every single day on the news, it was another young, Black boy that was being killed," Whitney told Inside Edition Digital. "When I went in for my 20-week visit and found out I was pregnant with a little boy, I started crying in the doctor's office. We're walking out, and my husband’s like, 'Can you stop crying? Why are you crying? We are having a healthy baby, Lauryn.' And I said, 'Yes, but it's a boy and I don't know how we're going to protect him.' And that was my reality."

Growing up in the affluent, largely white suburb of Plano, Texas, Whitney remembers her parents sitting her and her brother down to have the talk, too. 

"My parents did well for themselves and worked very hard to give us the lifestyle that we had, but they were always reminding us, 'When you go out, you are not seen the same,'" she remembers. 

"The conversations they had with my brother were sit-down and direct, 'Listen, if the cops come, you're going first. If the cops come, they're taking you first. There's no excuses. I don't care if you're with Billy or if you're with Ryan or whoever, any of your white friends, they're taking you. And if you're stopped by a cop, you put your hands on the wheel and say no, sir, yes, sir. Sir, may I please get my license out of my pocket?'"

Now a mother herself to a rambunctious, sweet and spirited 3-year-old son, Whitney finds that the talk has started even earlier than she expected. She worries that her toddler’s pretend karate chops will be viewed as more "aggressive" than those of his white peers. 

"I find myself having to tell him, 'bring it back a little bit,' because my son can't necessarily go into the same play space with a young white boy and play with his 3-and-a-half-year-old boy exploration,” she said. "Things that anybody else doesn't have to think of on a day-to-day basis, we have to think of out of the mere necessity to protect our lives, and we have to teach that to our children."

Whitney said she’s always carried that fear with her, but the death of George Floyd sparked something visceral. "When I saw George Floyd call for his mother, it was the very fear that any Black mother or any mother to a Black boy has: How do I protect him?" she said. 

So she decided to ask the world a simple and powerful question: When did my baby become a threat to you? In her video, Black boys and men list the milestones and day-to-day activities during which other Black men and boys have been killed: walking down the street, jogging, driving a car, playing with a toy gun and so many others. The testimonials are accompanied by a song called "Rose Petals" sung by Dee Wilson, which pays tribute to Black people who have lost their lives at the hands of police.

Whitney said she hopes her video and its probing question will lead white people to sit with themselves and reflect. 

“It has to be a deconstruction of thought. I say, ‘Ask yourself when my baby became a threat to you,’ and that is a direct question,” she explained. “And then I would further ask, are you willing to look at yourself and see what systems of white supremacy you uphold in your life? Or what systems of anti-Black racism you uphold, and how you benefit from them? Are you willing to lay them down for justice?"

Whitney also hopes the video becomes a rallying cry—particularly for white mothers to get off the sidelines and stand with mothers of color. As parents, she said, there is a unique role to play. 

"Kids don’t come out of the womb knowing hate," Whitney said. "We’re teaching our children what they know, so if they know hate, we taught them hate. If they know love, that's because we gave them a lot of love."

"The truth is, anti-Black racism damages both Black people and the people who are giving it because it teaches you not to see people as human,"  she added. "It takes away your humanity."

For more of The Issue, click here.