Teen drivers taught how to ‘survive’ a traffic stop — by the cops

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A Wilmington police officer approaches a car with teen drivers during a simulation witnessed by other students at William Penn High School. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

A Wilmington police officer approaches a car with teen drivers during a simulation witnessed by other students at William Penn High School. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Dylan Georges is carting three of his teenage buddies around Wilmington when they hear that unnerving blaring sound that no one behind the wheel – of any age – wants to experience: the police siren.

Inside his little white sedan it gets chaotic real fast and stays that way even as a female cop tries to talk with Georges about the stop sign he just ran. A male officer approaches the passenger side.

All four kids inside are yelling at first, and one kid announces he’s calling his mother. Georges remains calm in the driver’s seat, however.

“Guys, I got this,” he says, trying to assure them.

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“If you got this, why are we in trouble?” one calls out.

The kids really aren’t in trouble, though. Actually they are high school sophomores who are still taking driver’s education classes.

It’s part of a unique program run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware. They know that getting pulled over by police for the first time can be a harrowing experience for a teenager, and for cops as well.

So law enforcement officials and educators have collaborated on the Road Rights and Rules Initiative to ensure that traffic stops end safely for new drivers from Claymont to Selbyville.

Authorities don’t want to see them end up like Daunte Wright, the 20-year-old Black man from Minnesota shot by a police officer earlier this year when he re-entered his car during a traffic stop. That officer, who faces a first-degree manslaughter charge, has said she thought she was using her Taser on Wright, not her gun.

In the simulated exercise held this week at William Penn High, Georges was sent off with a warning after he politely followed the officers’ commands, despite the disruption by his friends.

Dylan Georges said he learned the importance of keeping calm even when his passengers were not. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Georges, who will get his conditional license later this year, said the handful of simulations he took part in were illuminating.

“I learned the importance of keeping your passengers under control too,’’ Georges told WHYY News. “When your passengers are freaking out, it just makes the whole situation a thousand times worse.”

Police ‘want to know where the kids’ hands are’

U.S. Attorney David Weiss realizes the public has a right to prevent officers from searching their vehicle and to record the stop. But he urges kids to be civil and comply with demands to provide their license and registration and to show their hands.

“There are reasons for those requests,’’ Weiss said. “They want to bring down the anxiety level. They want to know where the kids’ hands are. No furtive movements. Try to respect one another, work with one another and everyone goes home safely.”

U.S. Attorney David Weiss says the goal of the program is to ensure that after a traffic stop, ‘everyone goes home safely.’ (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The initiative has reached 1,200 students this school year, and Weiss said he plans to reach thousands more in the next few months.

Kyle Hitchens, who teaches drivers ed at William Penn, said he tells kids to keep calm at all times and do what they have been taught in class and on the road..

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“People are on high alert,’’ Hitchens said. “So an important thing for them to do is just to take a deep breath.  Make sure you put your car in park, take your foot off the brake, roll your windows down. If it’s nighttime, turn your light on and just have your hands visible and then just communicate with the officer and do what they’re asking you to do.”

During one simulation where he was caught going 45 mph in a 35 mph zone, Georges exercised his right to know why he was pulled over and to ask for leniency – all while one pal would not stop talking over everybody.

When his vocal pal in the back blurted to the cop that “we weren’t going that fast,’’ Georges asked the officer to “just ignore’’ his passenger, then asked, ”Can you let us off?”

But even if the cop gives drivers a traffic ticket, or worse, discovers a criminal offense, Weiss urges all drivers – not just teens – to keep their cool. The same advice goes if the driver thinks the officer’s behavior is questionable.

“If marijuana’s on the scene, if you’re under the influence, clearly it’s not the best circumstances for the citizen, but you want that person to survive the encounter,” Weiss said. “You don’t want them being aggressive with the police. Run your case through the court system and hopefully justice is done at the end of the day.”

Teen says police ‘gotta be understanding’

It’s not just drivers who have rules to follow, though. Weiss said his office has also held numerous de-escalation training sessions for officers.

Coby Owens of the Delaware NAACP says it’s important that police realize that respect is a two-way street.

“Just a few hours of training a year isn’t enough,” Owens said. “I hope they listen to some of the feedback that the kids may have, if they’ve ever had incidents with law enforcement, about how it went and how they perceived the actions of the officer dictated their actions in return.”

Georges suggested the police just follow their own advice and keep the temperature low.

Two Wilmington police officers approach a car with teen drivers during a simulation witnessed by other students at William Penn High School. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“They just gotta be understanding,’’ he said. “For teenagers, it’s probably going to be like their first time getting pulled over. So be helpful. Try to calm them down and stuff like that.”

Teacher Hitchens concurs.

“The drivers, especially young drivers, are in a panic mode almost when they get into these situations. So just have patience and communicate that you want everything to just go quick and easy.”

Wilmington police Sgt. Michael Coleman, who played the role of the belligerent kid in the car during the simulated stops with Georges, agrees the onus for a peaceful stop is on everybody involved.

“It’s not about liking the police or not liking the police. It’s about education and understanding your rights,’’ he said.

“It’s human on both sides. It’s humans in uniform. And those are humans that are getting stopped.”

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