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Travis Wiltshire was 17, driving with some classmates near his high school in Brooklyn when a police car turned on sirens, signaling for Wiltshire to pull over. He idled outside of his magnet campus and waited for the officer to approach the window, confused over what had caused the stop.
Cops, with their guns drawn, pulled the car’s driver and passengers out of the vehicle and threw them on the ground. They told the 17-year-old and his friends that they “resembled some people that they heard did something, and the car looked like something they heard was involved in an issue,” Wiltshire said.
Luckily, teachers were nearby and came running to vouch for their students. The event ended without incident, but the experience continues to rattle Wiltshire, now 53, to this day.
It’s one experience in a collection that spurred Wiltshire to have what he called “the talk” with his son Gavin before he turned 16 and began driving. And it’s what’s caused Wiltshire to brainstorm other ways he could protect his son, leading the Alamo Heights father to take his son and some friends to the local police station in an attempt to build a relationship with law enforcement and prevent future experiences similar to the one Wiltshire had.
“If you talk to most African American males or females, but mainly males, you’ll find out there are things that your parents teach you when you first learn to drive,” Wiltshire said.
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Most teenagers learn how to hold the steering wheel or to avoid veering into the other lane, he explained. But for Wiltshire, it was important Gavin knew exactly what to do when a police officer pulled him over: keep his hands on the wheel, only respond when asked a question, and above all else, be respectful. He didn’t want to scare his son, but he wanted to prepare him for the reality that he could be treated differently by law enforcement because of the color of his skin.
Wiltshire’s decision to introduce Gavin to members of the Alamo Heights Police Department was to create familiarity and form a positive relationship with the police.
“If I know you or I know your family, then I’m more likely to have a different type of conversation with you when you get pulled over,” Wiltshire said.
Wiltshire’s idea went beyond what Texas law already requires, which is for new drivers and police officers to receive training on police-citizen interactions.
In 2017, Senate Bill 30, which was authored by State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), passed after the death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas three days after she was arrested following a traffic stop. The bill created a law for new drivers and police officers to receive training on police-citizen interactions. West said at the time that he hoped the new required curriculum would relieve some of the tension from interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens during traffic stops.
Texas’ Racial Profiling Law requires police departments to publish an annual report with data on traffic stops and the demographics of the people stopped.
Alamo Heights Police Department’s most recent report from 2019 shows about 8.3 percent of the department’s 6,791 traffic stops involved black drivers, 64.1 percent involved Hispanic or Latino drivers, and 25 percent involved white drivers.
Census estimates from 2018 show the vast majority of the small suburban’ city’s 8,193 residents identified as white. About 6 percent identify as black or African American and 22.1 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino.
Wiltshire spoke with other families of color whose sons were friends with Gavin and extended the invitation to meet with Alamo Heights police officers. About 40 percent of the Alamo Heights High School class identifies as Hispanic and under 2 percent identifies as African American.
Wiltshire approached teacher John Muñoz, whose son Amari Brown is a classmate of Gavin’s. Muñoz quickly got on board and asked his son to invite “as many of the kids that look like us and that are getting ready to drive.”
Wiltshire’s friend Marcus Hervey also took him up on the offer, bringing his son William to the station earlier this year with what ended up being a group of about a dozen students.
Hervey thought establishing a relationship between his son and the police would open a dialogue. He reasoned that police have a role in society and deserve respect, but recognized that people in authority positions can abuse their power. He wanted to make sure he was taking steps to help de-escalate potential situations.
“Teenagers still feel like they can rule the world,” Hervey said. “I don’t want them to necessarily be fearful, but I just want them to be aware.”
Officer Brian McManis, who has been stationed at the high school, led the presentation about what to do when pulled over. The boys, who were initially shy about the interaction, asked a few questions and received a tour of the station. Parents tentatively made plans to continue meetings because they didn’t feel one visit was enough to forge a bond, but the pandemic altered their plans. Wiltshire said he hopes they can restart the meetings once everything returns to a more normal rhythm.
“As a [school resource officer] alone, the biggest part of our job is building those relationships with students, [showing] the humanity behind the badge,” McManis said. “Yes, we are police officers, but behind that, we are humans, too.
“[Building trust is] extremely beneficial as far as my job as an SRO and whenever I’m out on the streets because I see quite a few of the kids from the school out driving or out riding bikes or whatever it is.”
The meeting between the Alamo Heights police and the young drivers took place before the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes as Floyd gasped for air. The death sparked protests throughout the country, including in San Antonio and Alamo Heights, and spurred conversations about institutional racism and police brutality.
Wiltshire said the conversations stemming from Floyd’s death have inspired him to remain active in his community. He feels that when an issue goes unnamed, it goes unaddressed. Wiltshire also emphasized that even if a community member doesn’t feel like racism or biases are a problem in their area, that might not be true for everyone.
“If it is not as prevalent in your neighborhood, that may just be your perception or your viewpoint,” said Wiltshire, who is mulling a run for Alamo Heights City Council or for a seat on the Alamo Heights ISD board to bring a diverse voice to these issues in a predominantly white city. “If you ask somebody that maybe looks a little bit differently, you might find out from their view, whether or not when they walk down the street they get a look … of do they really live here? … Does that mean somebody was dragged down by the police, maybe not, but it stems from the same thought process, it stems from that same feeling.”
The meeting with Alamo Heights Police Department didn’t touch on the fears that pushed Wiltshire, Hervey, Muñoz, and other parents to proactively reach out to law enforcement officials, Wiltshire said. Some parents didn’t want past distrust of police to taint a potential relationship.
Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has rooted itself throughout the country, including in San Antonio, it would be difficult to exclude it from future conversations, several parents said.
“When you look at it, police are there to establish relationships with the community,” Hervey said. “The community trusts the police officers, and hopefully the police officers can trust the community as well. When you don’t have those levels of trust is when these types of things happen.
“One of the things when I was growing up in the black community, they would say it takes a community to raise a child and, you know, maybe that should extend beyond just the black community.”