State Teacher of the Year Nathan Gibbs-Bowling says it’s in the back of black people’s minds that “you can do everything right, and still end up dead.” That’s why he was inspired to teach his students what to do if they are stopped by an officer while driving.
TACOMA — When Lincoln High School government teacher Nathan Gibbs-Bowling teaches his Tacoma students about the U.S. Constitution, he adds a few lessons on survival skills.
He wants them to understand their rights under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by police. But he also wants his students to know how those powerful words can play out in real life.
“I encourage them to assert their rights in an informed, responsible manner,” Gibbs-Bowling said. “What I try to teach kids is that, whenever they engage with police, they should maintain their cool. Keep calm. And end the engagement as soon as possible.”
Gibbs-Bowling’s status as Washington state’s 2016 Teacher of the Year has thrust his online personal blog, where he posted about his Fourth Amendment lessons in April, into a national spotlight among educators. Following recent shootings by police officers of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, he tweeted about it again.
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“It’s been shared a bunch of times,” he said, noting that he has heard from teachers in at least four other states who have pledged to use the syllabus in their classrooms this year.
Gibbs-Bowling said Lincoln kids — 75 percent students of color and nearly 80 percent living in poverty — are the demographic most likely to have adverse encounters with police officers. That’s why he wants them to be informed.
“It’s not like it’s me going on a progressive, libertarian screed,” he said. “This is making content I’m required to teach authentic and relevant.”
Gibbs-Bowling says he’s not anti-police. His brother is a police officer, and Gibbs-Bowling once toyed with the idea of becoming a State Patrol trooper before deciding on a teaching career. In his handout to students, he points out that “police work is very difficult and they make choices day-to-day that have life-altering impacts.”
But he says he feels compelled to speak out about abuses of power by police officers.
“I believe there is a legitimate role for law enforcement in making society a better place,” he said. “But bad cops don’t do that.”
In his April blog post, Gibbs-Bowling recounts some of his childhood experiences as a black kid growing up in Tacoma. He talks about having to carry a receipt for a new bike his parents bought him, because he was repeatedly stopped by police officers who wanted to ask if he had stolen it. He also relates how, at age 15, while he was waiting for a bus, he was tackled by police and had a gun pointed at his face because “like countless other black men, I matched the description.”
He says he still gets pulled over by cops multiple times per year.
“The majority of white, progressive Americans don’t know how much anxiety African Americans have about being stopped by police,” he said. “We watch video encounters with police, and wonder what that person could have done differently.”
He says it’s in the back of black people’s minds that “you can do everything right, and still end up dead.” That’s why he was inspired to teach his students about what to do if they are stopped by an officer while driving.
He tells them to maintain respect. But he also offers practical tips: Keep your hands in plain sight. If the stop happens at night, turn on the dome light inside your vehicle. He tells students to decide if it’s safe to record the encounter on video. And he tells them to watch who they hang around with.
Loretta Cool, spokeswoman for the Tacoma Police Department, says that’s good advice. But she adds more: “What I would also advise is to follow instructions. If you are asked for your ID, that’s not the time to question. Listen to what the officer is telling you to do.”
She said police stop people for specific reasons: because they have committed a traffic violation, because they match the description of a suspect in a crime, or their vehicle matches the description given by witnesses. Sometimes the only description police have might be “unknown male,” she adds.
“We have a specific reason for the contact,” Cool said. “You may truly not be the person we are looking for. But we don’t know that.”
“Until I can determine you’re not the criminal, I act as if you are,” she said. “That’s the only way I can stay safe. I’m looking for nuances in behavior. What I’m concerned about is if they have a weapon that’s going to hurt me.”
She has heard criticisms from people of color who say they are stopped by police more often than white people. But she says that police stop motorists or people on the street “based on actions, not on color or race.”
Gibbs-Bowling informs his students that they have a constitutional right to refuse an unreasonable search of themselves or their property, and a right to not answer questions, beyond basic factual matters, without their parents or an attorney present.
Cool adds that people do have a right to question police.
“When the initial situation is over, ask all the questions you want then,” Cool said. “If you want to argue, the time to do so is later in the contact, when it has been established that you are not the suspect I’m looking for.”
Asked if it’s OK to video a police officer during a traffic stop, Cool says she tells officers they can’t stop people from capturing video. She says officers should act as if they are always on camera.
“If you operate as if you are always being videotaped, you never have to worry about it,” she said.
Tacoma police are not equipped with body cameras, as some departments elsewhere are. But the department has a working group looking into the possibility of adding them, Cool said.
Gibbs-Bowling urges everyone to file formal complaints if they feel they have been treated poorly by police. That way, there will be a track record if a future question arises about an officer’s use of force, he said.
He believes the United States is in need of police reform.
“We need more civilian oversight of law enforcement,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s pleased that educators around the country have responded to his Fourth Amendment syllabus. But he’s saddened that he’ll probably be tweeting about it again.
“It kind of breaks my heart that every time there’s a police shooting, I have a prepared tweet,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”