Students get tips on what to do if stopped by police

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Gabriel Sims-Allen automatically keeps his hands at “10” and “2” on the steering wheel if he gets stopped by a police officer.

“And when the officer asks for my driver’s license and registration, I tell him I’m going to reach around to my pocket to get my ID so they’ll know I’m not reaching for a weapon,” said Sims-Allen, who was stopped for a broken headlight.

It’s crucial that the Cass Tech High School student understands how to interact with a police officer when stopped. He’s a 16-year-old African-American male — a demographic that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to reach before that interaction ends tragically.

“People should know beforehand what to do when stopped by a police officer, which is one of the things I already learned in my First Amendment class, and what we’re learning here,” he said.

“Here” was “Black Lives Matter Day” at Cass Tech during a forum Friday featuring law enforcement officers, a judge, lawyers and activists. Students from the Michigan State University College of Law also offered workshops to teach students their constitutional rights and how best to handle themselves when encountering police.

Angela White is a second-year law student at Michigan State University who presents a First Amendment clinic at the high school on Fridays as a guest lecturer.

“My goal is to educate our young people about how important it is to pay attention to how you interact with police officers,” she said. “You must remain calm and speak intelligently and wait for your day in court.”

Black Lives Matter regularly organizes protests around the deaths of black people in shootings by law enforcement officers and also addresses broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality in the U.S. criminal justice system.

The movement began in 2013 with the use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. Black Lives Matter became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African-Americans who were shot by police: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City.

The ensuing protests and unrest were met by a counter movement, with the slogan “All Lives Matter.”

But Christopher Horne, who helped coordinate the Cass Tech event and who is the “dream director” at the school, put it in perspective for the students.

“All lives do matter,” he told the audience. “But your life is the one being targeted like it does not matter.”

Since the Ferguson protests, participants in the movement have demonstrated against the deaths of numerous other African-Americans by police actions or while in police custody, including those of Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Freddie Gray.

Panelists at the forum included Judge Kenneth King of 36th District Court; Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Kim Miles; criminal defense lawyer Cliff Woodward; former Detroit police commission attorney and prosecutor Aliyah Sabree, Black Lives Matter activist Angela Waters Austin; Daniel Rosa, a training specialist with the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Detroit police officer Curtis Shell.

Those in attendance watched video of the police stop of Sandra Bland that ultimately ended with her being found hanging in her Texas jail cell last July. They also watched video of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy playing with a fake gun in a park who was killed by a police officer in Cleveland in November 2014.

King offered advice to students if a law enforcement encounter could become confrontational.

“If faced with some situation where it is just you and a police officer, if you feel like you’ve been wronged, the officer could be dead wrong but there’s another way to handle it,” he said. “In some instances, it could cost you your life.”

He told students to take it to the next level. Contact the officer’s superior, get his name and badge number if possible.

“It does no good to go off on the police officer,” he said. “You have to ask yourself what you are trying to achieve from the interaction. It is OK to stand down. It does not mean you are weak. It means you are smart.”

Sabree gave students a phone number to call if they feel they’ve been mistreated by a police officer: (313) 596-2499, Detroit’s Office of the Chief Investigator, a civilian group that investigates complaints.

(313) 222-2296