SAN ANTONIO – Two-dozen mostly minority Sam Houston High School students boarded a bus one early Wednesday morning to take the day off of school.
But they weren’t ditching their school lessons. In place of theories from textbooks, the students instead experienced lessons from life at the San Antonio Police Training Academy.
There, they met with officers from the San Antonio Police Department, U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin, and officials from the FBI, in a program known as “Bridging the Gap.” The goal is to bring students together with local and federal law enforcement personnel in response to repeated national incidents involving police and young minorities.
The mission is to educate and understand -- on both sides of the badge.
“Do what they ask you to do, whether you agree with them or not,” Officer Larry Norman, a tactics instructor at the training academy, said as he spoke to a group of students.
The program is designed to teach what an officer may be going through while responding to a call, and whether their reaction is based on a previous call or a personal issue.
Michelle Lee, an FBI special agent, said that everyone should try to understand each other more.
"Consider (that the officer) may have just came from a call where he found a dead baby, a child that was killed by the parents,” she said to the students. “He could have come from a scene where there was a brutal stabbing, shooting or something like this.”
The program is a first-of-its-kind collaboration between San Antonio police, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office. The students were put through four different scenarios, including a loud party, a traffic stop, a street encounter, and a firearms training simulation.
Students then took the role of a police officer.
In their own words
“The attitude that you give is going to be what you get,” Officer Daniel Loudermilk told his group of students at the traffic stop.
“Do we make mistakes at times?” he asked them. “Unfortunately, yes, just like everybody else. But ours get blown up even bigger because the eyes are already on us as law enforcement.”
He told the students that he wanted to highlight positive interactions with police officers, and asked them to not think of what they see on social media as “the Gospel truth.”
“We’re approachable,” he said. “We’re human beings. We do things for a reason.”
Norman said he thinks putting the students -- as well as officers in the role-reversal -- through scenario-based training, gives them a different perspective.
“I think right now it’s extremely important for the community to know exactly what our police jobs are, and the different challenges that we face,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges that we do face is that we want the community to trust us. We want these kids to know that they can call us at any time if they need some help.”
Leaders with the San Antonio Independent School District did not allow the students to be interviewed. But they exhibited a wide array of questions and concerns, mostly with case-by-case concerns that they or their friends may have encountered.
In one instance, a training instructor handed a training pistol to one of the students to act in the role of a police officer, while the instructor acted as an assailant. The instructor told the student to pull the trigger, and at the same time he fired his own pretend weapon to demonstrate that decisions are made split-second.
In the example, both the assailant and the officer would have been shot.
Students said they also wondered why police officers would use deadly force in situations that may not warrant firing a weapon. One student asked why police officers wouldn’t try to use martial arts to apprehend someone.
One instructor told the student that officers may not know what the perpetrator may be trying to do, and the bad guy may be trying to make an attempt on the police officer’s life.
Sam Houston High School Principal Darnell White, who was listening intently from the back of the room, summarized the experience for the students and the law enforcement personnel in the room.
“The police officer’s job, it’s a tough job, and there are a lot of scenarios that they go through on a daily basis just to carry out their job,” he said. “It first starts with having conversations and being respectful when they’re interacting with people in authority.”
He said that goes for students who deal with anyone in authority, as well as teachers who interact with administrators, administrators who interact with those above them, and so on.
“Especially with our young people (who are) following direction from those people, what we learned today is (that) situations go awry when instructions are given and people, for whatever reason, decide not to follow those,” White said.
What can people do?
The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization described as defending the rights of Americans guaranteed by the Constitution, outlines protocols that people can follow if stopped by police.
- Be polite and respectful. Never bad-mouth a police officer.
- Stay calm and in control of your words, body language and emotions.
- Don’t get into an argument with the police. Remember, anything you say or do can be used against you.
- Keep your hands where the police can see them.
The ACLU also has a section on knowing your rights in certain situations.