MAXWELL:  How to deal with police and stay safe

11/5/1997 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Today’s column is my personal appeal to all black males, especially the young ones, to learn how act appropriately when they find themselves face-to-face with the police.

U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson announced Monday that, because of a lack of evidence, his office will not indict St. Petersburg police Officer James Knight on a charge of violating the civil rights of black motorist TyRon Lewis. Knight shot and killed Lewis in a traffic stop in October 1996 that sparked a night of rioting. A second night of violence occurred after a grand jury ruled that the shooting was justified.

Placing blame for the death of Lewis is not pertinent at this time. What matters most is that you learn a lesson beyond the anti-cop rhetoric coming from some sectors of the black community. The ugly reality is that cops will always stop and arrest young men like you. To remain safe and, in some cases, to survive, you must learn how to act when the police confront you.

What follows is a summary of a Pinellas County Urban League pamphlet titled “What To Do If Stopped By The Police.”

In general, when an officer approaches, do not “express yourself” or worry about being “dissed.” You should remain calm. Even if you are headed for jail, your goal is to prevent a negative confrontation with the police. Remember, your reaction may alarm or upset the officer and poison the rest of the entire encounter.

If you are stopped on the street:

Keep body movements to a minimum. If you have a medical condition, tell the officer. Alert the officer if you are about to move. Better yet, ask for permission to move.

Keep your hands in view of the officer and try to think clearly.

Observe or ask (in all situations) for the officer’s name, badge number or business card _ if appropriate.

Make eye contact with the officer. In this way, the officer will know that he has your attention, and you will know that you have his.

Provide identification if requested.

If you are stopped while driving:

Use your turn signals and pull over safely. Stay in your vehicle and wait for the officer to approach, and get out only if orders you to.

Keep your hands on the steering wheel in full view of the officer, unless otherwise instructed.

When asked to provide your driver’s license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance, do so. If an item is not easily accessible, ask the officer to let you get it.

If you receive a ticket, ask the officer if you can explain, but do not argue. If you believe that the citation was unwarranted, make your appeal in court, not when you receive the citation. In this way, you avoid a more serious complication. And sign the citation when asked to do so because you are required to by law. To sign is not to admit guilt.

The police may stop you if you are:

1. Near a crime scene and fit the description of a suspect.

2. Hanging out in known drug areas.

3. Acting suspiciously _ running or hidding _ when police are near.

4. Walking with large and/or valuable items (TV, stereo equipment).

5. Identified as a crime suspect.

6. Bad-mouthing officers.

7. Playing loud music.

8. Violating traffic laws, such as speeding, having faulty lights or turn signals, a loud muffler, driving erratically, improperly changing lanes or weaving in and out of traffic.

9. In possession of an open alcohol container.

10. A minor in possession of alcohol.

11. Wearing clothing resembling that worn by a gang.

12. An unsupervised minor out late at night.

Remember that if officers stop you, they think that they have a good reason to do so. After the stop, you should immediately note the time and the location. Again, remain calm and do not argue. In many situations, you can talk your way into a jail cell.

If you believe that you have been verbally or physically abused, you and the adults in your life should file a written complaint at the police department’s front desk. Be sure to keep a copy of the document for your records. If you need legal advice, consult a lawyer as soon as possible.

Individuals and organizations can obtain copies of the pamphlet by visiting the Pinellas County Urban League office at 300 31st St. N in St. Petersburg, or by calling 327-2081.