Street smart Student-police forum focuses on key issues

By Frank Weir

Legal News

Advice for black youth if stopped by law enforcement?

Cooperate. Don't argue and certainly don't fight. Even if you feel you are being treated unfairly, you will not win on the street. Save that for the courtroom and in a formal complaint to the agency involved.

That was part of the message that resulted from a March 9 forum titled "What to Do When Stopped by the Police" held at Ypsilanti High School that featured a panel of local law enforcement and members of the legal community organized by Robyn McCoy and others.

Panel participants included Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton, Ypsilanti Police Chief Tony DeGuisti, assistant prosecutor Anthony Kendrick, assistant public defender Delphia Simpson, attorney Michael Vincent, ACLU attorney Mark Fancher, and Deputy Eugene Rush.

Moderators and commenters included McCoy, Saundra White, Monica Ross Williams, Michael Henry, and Ypsilanti Mayor Pro Tem Lois Richardson along with Principal Justin Jennings. Each panel member offered introductory comments to around 100 students and then questions from the students were answered.

Clayton's department has prepared a helpful booklet which was passed out to the students and is available to others that contains common questions and answers about being stopped by police.

"Our booklet was put together to communicate the same things I tell my sons: here is how you should conduct yourself," Clayton said. "We are trying to do a good job. And remember that our officers put their lives on the line to protect you. Someone does not do that if they hate you. But human beings have racial biases. We try to weed those people out but we can't always do that perfectly so we put things in place to deal with it."

Clayton went on to say that there are biases against police officers on the part of the citizenry too.

"Both sides have to approach each other without the stereotype that the other is out to do something to them," Clayton said. "Race, youth and law enforcement is a highly complex issue. These are things that people don't want to have a conversation about because its uncomfortable, but we have to have that conversation, that dialogue."

DeGuisti suggested that students not do the behaviors that call the police to them.

"If you see problems in the criminal justice system, then get involved. If you just complain, nothing changes so participate, get involved."

Several panelists, including Kendrick, advised students not to fumble in their glove boxes if their vehicle is stopped.

"The officer may think you are going for a gun or hiding evidence. Keep your hands in plain view."

Vincent told students of his time as a sergeant at the Ypsilanti Police Department.

"When I was a police officer in Ypsilanti, I lived there," Vincent said. "My kids went to this school. I have stayed here but now you have white police officers with very little contact with the communities they police. They don't have the interaction that I had when I grew up in Detroit, for instance.

"In Ferguson (Mo.), the police department had, what, two or three black officers out of 50? When you live in the community where you work, you know the people there," Vincent said. "You aren't scared to run into black folks because they are your neighbors. If you treat someone badly at night, and then shop where they shop the next day, you aren't going to treat them that way."

Vincent challenged the students: "Register to vote. People are not voting. Have an impact on decisions that are made and the enactment of those decisions. It's a power everybody has."

ACLU attorney Fancher joined others to say the street is not the place to resist, but also encouraged black students to resist in other ways.

"Resistance is very much a part of us who are of African American descent," he said.

"Police officers may have the best of intentions but they are operating on auto pilot and following policies that have been the tradition for generations. An individual officer may not be racist but he is operating on a series of stereotypes that are very old.

"Learn as much as you can about legal history and how your condition is due to the accident of your birth. Get groups of students together and have discussions, then others have to listen to you.

"Understand the proper place and time and opportunity to resist, but do resist," Fancher said.

Published: Thu, Mar 19, 2015