DEAR ABBY: My husband and I are the parents of three college-age children, all of whom drive their own cars. We are law-abiding citizens who have no trouble with the law. The town we live in has been designated a high-crime area by the county police, so it is not uncommon to see cars pulled over, not only for minor traffic violations, but also for "suspicious" behavior.
My concern as a parent is that most young people don't know how to act if they are stopped by police. Of course, they are expected to answer all questions respectfully. However, do they know that if they reach into their pockets for a license or identification, they might be perceived as reaching for a weapon? Shouldn't they learn this in school as part of a health and safety course?
Recently my children and a few friends were relating experiences of being stopped by the police. I was appalled to hear about some of the encounters these kids have had. My sons and their friends were grabbed from a vehicle, thrown up against the car and searched, just because the driver had started to reach for his wallet. My daughter was yelled at and ridiculed because she began trembling, and then was told she was in "no condition" to drive and must contact a parent.
By the way, we are not part of a minority group, so this was not racial profiling -- and my children dress conservatively. I have always taught them respect for authority, including the police, but I expect that same respect from police in return. -- GAIL FROM BRENTWOOD, N.Y.
DEAR GAIL: I, too, was taught as a child that "the policeman is our friend"; it's a lesson I passed on to my children. While that is still true in most cases today, the availability of illegal weapons has made the job of policing more dangerous than it was a generation or two ago. Call it self-protection or paranoia -- police now fear for their lives when they make routine traffic stops.
I agree that young people should know exactly how to respond if they are pulled over by police. Their parents should instruct them: One's hands should be in plain sight at all times. If there is a need to reach into a pocket or purse, or to open a glove compartment or trunk, the officer should be asked for permission first.
You mentioned that your children's experience was not the result of racial profiling. In many cases it IS. The American Civil Liberties Union has mounted a campaign to bring attention to this problem, and thanks to the activism of people of color who have come forward with their stories, politicians and law enforcement officers are beginning to take notice.
Hundreds of law enforcement agencies have agreed to collect data on the race and ethnicity of the people they stop, which is the first step in dealing with the problem. Bills requiring police to collect data on traffic stops have passed in several states and are on their way to becoming law in others. It's a welcome step in the right direction.