Sometimes I feel like I can hardly breathe under the weight of the violence, anger, and grief. (I know I’m not alone.) But it’s my job to speak on these matters, so here are my immediate thoughts.
1. Flexing your rights doesn’t guarantee that police won’t kill you.
It also doesn’t guarantee that police won’t use excessive force or arrest you on the spot. Such concerns are particularly pressing within communities of color. These are harsh truths, but we mustn’t hide from the truth.
Regardless, it’s still wise to combine rights-flexing with a calm demeanor. But that too cannot guarantee a peaceful outcome. Because the goal of know-your-rights education is not to guarantee an outcome. The goal is to improve your odds of securing a peaceful outcome on the streets and a legal victory if you wind up in court.
2. Know-your-rights education is more difficult, yet more important than ever.
This Sunday I spoke at a know-your-rights event near downtown Washington, DC. Because of the event’s timing, the mood of the 15-odd attendees was somber. After screening 10 Rules for Dealing with Police, one vocal attendee doubted the value of our approach. He insisted that “our rights don’t matter anymore, because at the end of the day police and judges will do whatever they want.”
Lucky for me, the smart event organizer took our advice. He invited a local criminal defense lawyer, Cheryl Stein, to handle audience questions. Her response to the skeptic was decisive: “My everyday experience contradicts that … I frequently argue points of law in my clients’ favor.” An animated discussion continued for another hour. It didn’t stop until the small crowd exhausted all their questions. They went home more confident in the power of their rights – plus they now have a lawyer’s business card just in case!
3. We must do more for people AFTER bad police encounters.
As I mentioned, rights-flexing cannot guarantee that police will always respect your rights. But when things go bad, people must be empowered to file complaints against police. These complaints are essential to identify cops with behavior problems before they do more harm to the community.
For too many of us, the police complaints process is a dead-end. Police departments are often dismissive, rude, or completely non-responsive. Worse, many state laws block complaints that reveal misconduct from the public.
These complaints are too important to be ignored! That’s why we are building Open Police Complaints with help from police accountability professionals. Our web service will help make sure police complaints are accessible, responsive, and transparent.
Thank you for helping to strengthen our constitution. And thank you for helping build better relationships between police and communities they serve. Despite this week’s terrible events, we are making a real difference in people’s lives.