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Meet Chief Ken Burton: Police Leadership at Its Finest

In our last alert I mentioned that Columbia, MO police Chief Ken Burton has been using 10 Rules for Dealing with Police to educate the public about constitutional rights.

Now you can listen to Chief Burton describe in his own words how Flex Your Rights’ educational message aligns with his policing philosophy.

I also recently participated in an NPR affiliate interview with Chief Burton and policing expert David A. Harris. It’s an in-depth look at problems in modern policing — including some great discussion of SWAT raids, police accountability, racial profiling, and the importance of know-your-rights education.

Watch the streaming video of the interview here.

We’ve come a long way since our first video was released on VHS tape. What began as an effort to educate activists is now influencing entire police departments to be mindful of citizens’ constitutional rights.

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“All of our cops around here are good cops.”

That’s how Crawford County State’s Attorney Tom Wiseman justifies his decision to bring five felony charges against an Illinois man who recorded an encounter with police officers. As the debate over the right to record police heats up, I’ve often found myself wondering how on earth anyone in law-enforcement could justify arresting citizens simply for recording video of a public encounter.

Alas, this piece by Radley Balko answers my question and it isn’t pretty. Imagine my surprise to find the same folks who coined the phrase, "If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what are you worried about?" suddenly claiming a right to privacy after videos of police misconduct began springing up all over the web.

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Flex Gets Great Response at NAACP Nat’l Conf.

Last week I presented 10 Rules for Dealing with Police at the NAACP National Conference. The panel hosted by NAACP’s Criminal Justice Program was focused on youth and the criminal justice system.

The 200-member audience was mostly high school and college-aged, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better reception. The video got an enthusiastic round of applause. More importantly, everyone stayed for the Q&A, which went beyond the allotted hour.

Before the screening, I asked if anyone had received any kind of know-your-rights training. Only a handful raised their hands. But afterward, their new knowledge inspired sophisticated questions covering Miranda rights, PATRIOT Act, videotaping police and more.

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Policing Stories in the Press

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic comments on a recent incident in which a 57-year-old school-teacher was tased after calling police to report a prowler.

New York Times reports on a section of Brooklyn that’s become a focal point for NYPD’s out-of-control stop and frisk tactics. “These encounters amounted to nearly one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 residents of these blocks.” Yikes.

The controversy over last year’s arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates is back in the press following the release of a new police report investigating the incident. Interestingly, the findings don’t really address the issue of race, which is surprising given the role that racial tension played in the encounter and subsequent debate.

NPR had a great piece last week on the right of citizens to videotape police, featuring Radley and Carlos Miller. USA Today also has an excellent editorial defending the pratice of recording officers in public.

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Awesome Police Dept. Teaches Citizens to Flex Their Rights

You and I are well-trained to refuse certain police requests. But when I was approached by Columbia, MO Police Chief Ken Burton the other month, I was happy to consent.

The Chief called to ask my permission to use 10 Rules for Dealing with Police as part of a department-backed public education campaign to inform the public of their rights. Enthusiastically, I said yes.

Within weeks, a new report was released showing that in 2009 black motorists in Columbia were 127% more likely to be stopped than white motorists. At a public forum hosted by NAACP and other groups concerned about racial profiling, Chief Burton put 10 Rules to work.

The Columbia Daily Tribune editorialized in favor of the event, specifically citing 10 Rules.

State NAACP President Mary Ratliff called the video “a powerful teaching tool for both sides” and urged its wide distribution.

This is quite a coming-together. Ratliff has been critical of police in their confrontations with black people, and police have defended themselves in standoffs typically without a mutually agreeable resolution. The video gives both sides a way to communicate outside the context of a traumatic incident and might help subjects avoid trouble with the police.

The police department deserves credit for taking action to bridge the understanding gap, and Ratliff deserves similar credit for responding positively. This is a big deal, and I commend both parties.

Let’s follow Chief Burton and Mary Ratliff’s lead! If you or someone you know has a friendly relationship with your local police chief, why not give them a 10 Rules DVD a copy of the Daily Tribune editorial?

Let’s create hundreds of police-led screenings across the country!

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Controversial Video Shows Seattle Officer Punching Woman in the Face

This video of a police officer punching a young woman is generating a lot of discussion around the web:

Unlike most viral videos of police using force against a suspect, this one seems to be generating a considerable amount of sympathy for the officer involved. Even on sites like Digg.com with a history of exposing and condemning police brutality, a majority of commenters feel that the officer acted more or less appropriately under the circumstances.

Since we can't see what took place prior to the video footage, it's impossible to completely critique the officer's handling of the situation. But it's clear that the woman who was struck had shoved the officer in an attempt to help her friend resist arrest. Though hard to watch, I doubt the officer's actions were technically illegal under the circumstances. He'd been assaulted, and police are authorized to use force when that happens.

I think I agree with Radley Balko that the officer should never have let a jaywalking arrest escalate to this point, but there's a reasonable counter-argument that police shouldn’t let uncooperative suspects off the hook simply to avoid a conflict. Flex Your Rights teaches passive non-cooperation such as remaining silent and refusing to consent to searches, and we strongly discourage physically resisting police during a detention or arrest.

The punch was ugly and unnecessary, but the behavior of the suspects here was also completely out of control. Even the most unreasonable arrest is better resolved by pleading your case to the judge than wrestling the officer on the street. You can't win that way, and there's no limit to how badly you could be hurt. … Continued

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Supreme Court Limits Right Against Self-Incrimination

The Supreme Court ruled today in Berghuis v. Thompkins that a criminal suspect must specifically invoke the right against self-incrimination in order for constitutional protections to apply.

The case centered around the interrogation of murder suspect Van Chester Thompkins, who remained virtually silent for hours, before giving a few brief responses to police questions. Most significantly, Thompkins answered “yes” when asked, “Do you pray to God to forgive you for shooting that boy down?” The statement was introduced at trial and Thompkins was convicted.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Court held that criminal suspects who do not clearly state their intention to remain silent are presumed to have waived their 5th Amendment rights. Ironically, suspects must literally open their mouths and speak in order for their silence to be legally protected. The new rule will defer to police in cases where the suspect fails to unambiguously assert their right to remain silent.

Naturally, Flex Your Rights is concerned about any retreat from the basic principle that criminal suspects should not be compelled or coerced into incriminating themselves. Today’s ruling will undoubtedly create additional challenges for suspects who already understand too little about how their constitutional rights apply during police interrogations.

Fortunately, however, the Berghuis decision leaves intact the best strategy for handling any police interrogation: keeping your mouth shut. Requiring suspects with limited legal knowledge to clearly assert their rights may seem a bit strict, but it’s irrelevant if the suspect never says a word to begin with. The point of the 5th Amendment isn’t to protect you after you’ve foolishly incriminated yourself, it’s to remind you that you’re not obligated to answer police questions in the first place.

Ultimately, the burden is on each of us to understand our rights and use that information to make the best decisions. It’s unlikely that any Supreme Court decision will ever change the fact that remaining silent is your best and only strategy if police are asking you incriminating questions. … Continued

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Arizona & Reasonable Suspicion

Defenders of the strict new immigration law claim that the law’s reasonable suspicion requirement will prevent abuses. This argument gives Cato Institute scholar and Flex Board of Advisors member Tim Lynch his own reasons to be suspicious.

The police are going to ask questions and request to see papers in a variety of circumstances — whether they have reasonable suspicion or not. From a legal, constitutional, and practical perspective, the key issue is this: What are the consequences, if any, for the person who stands his ground and declines to answer questions or declines to produce identification papers? If a person declines, will the police back off and say, “Well, that is your right, sir, you may go” or will the police escalate the situation by ordering the person to answer questions, ordering the production of identification, detaining the person, or threaten the person with arrest on bogus charges?

Lynch digs deeper into the practical dilemma faced by laypeople attempting to Flex their rights.

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Teachers Suspended for Showing Flex Your Rights Video

Since Flex Your Rights was founded in 2002 to educate the public about constitutional rights during police encounters, our work has met with very little controversy. Every citizen should understand their basic Bill of Rights protections, and our materials have been embraced by both police and the public. That’s why we’re deeply concerned about today’s news that two high school teachers in Virginia were suspended after showing one of our videos to their students:

Two Norview High School teachers were placed on paid administrative leave this week after a parent complained that they distributed classroom materials that gave advice on how to deal with police if stopped.

The video, “Busted: Citizen’s Guide to Surviving Police Encounters,” is posted online at http://tinyurl.com/2sb2ho.  It opens with a portrayal of young adults stopped by a traffic officer who searches their car and arrests them for marijuana possession.

A commentator on the video states, “Whether or not you break the law, this video is designed to explain what the law is and how you can legally and properly assert your constitutional rights through even the most stressful police encounters.”

For each scene, the commentator explains how legal rights apply to police searches of vehicles, homes or individuals and how people can cite those rights during encounters with police. [The Virginian-Pilot]

Millions of these encounters occur each year in America, and it is plainly absurd to suggest that our young people should receive no education in how to handle them. People who understand their rights and know what to expect during a police encounter are less likely to make regrettable decisions, thus our materials reduce the likelihood of negative outcomes for both individuals and officers of the law.

Unfortunately, as we work to provide this important public service, we do sometimes receive criticism from individuals who misinterpret our discussion of constitutional rights as an endorsement of breaking the law. It’s not. We sometimes depict and discuss criminal activity in our materials because there are important legal lessons that are difficult to illustrate without it. Police are trained both to fight crime and uphold the constitution, and there are numerous instances in which these interests come into conflict with one another.  Depicting such scenarios makes our work realistic, but should not make it controversial.

In a perfect world, only bad people would be stopped by police, misunderstandings involving innocent people would not occur, and our laws would never be used to punish anyone who didn’t deserve it. Things just aren’t that simple, and the constitutional rights we all enjoy were brilliantly designed by our nation’s founders to help ensure fairness under sometimes complicated circumstances.

That’s why police have endorsed, rather than condemned our efforts, and the video at the heart of today’s controversy has earned overwhelmingly positive reactions such as this one:

“BUSTED teaches that people have precious inherent rights under our
Constitution and should never feel guilty when exercising these rights
during police encounters.”

      – Joseph D. McNamara, Former San Jose Police Chief

Indeed, no American should ever be ashamed to assert their Bill of Rights protections, and our educators should be praised, rather than reprimanded, when they teach constitutional rights in the classroom. Withholding this important knowledge from students is gravely irresponsible and we’ll vigorously oppose any effort to silence or mischaracterize the work of our organization.

Please click here to share your concerns with the school administration, and stay tuned for more details as they emerge.

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