Interact this way: Albemarle police pocket guide raises concerns

Albemarle’s new police chief, Ron Lantz, wants to foster cooperation during encounters 
with police.
Eze Amos Albemarle’s new police chief, Ron Lantz, wants to foster cooperation during encounters with police. Eze Amos

A just-printed Albemarle County Police Department pamphlet was intended to build trust and cooperation between citizens and law enforcement during interactions that are now under a national spotlight. Its content, however, has alarmed some local attorneys, who say the guide’s instructions are incorrect or even unconstitutional.

“The document is very concerning,” says Legal Aid Justice Center’s Emily Dreyfus, who has held workshops on dealing with the police for kids in low-income neighborhoods. “I am always glad to see increased efforts at building positive relationships, but the pamphlet doesn’t adequately speak to the rights of the public.”

For example, people always have the right to remain silent, but the pamphlet says that right only becomes available when someone is taken into custody, she says. “This document mistakenly implies people are required to reveal their citizenship status,” she says.

The pamphlet, “Building Trust and Cooperation: A Guide to Interacting with Law Enforcement,” encourages people to record information if they have an interaction with a police officer that didn’t go well, but doesn’t say how to file a complaint and what will happen afterward, she says.

Last year Charlottesville police and the Office of Human Rights published its own pocket guide called “Your Rights and Responsibilities.”

Albemarle’s is “not a know-your-rights pamphlet,” says county police Chief Ron Lantz. “Cooperation is the key.” The side of the road is not the place to discuss whether the stop is justified and that’s why the guide provides numbers for citizens to call if they have a complaint, he says. “It’s all about working with the police.”

The project was started by his predecessor, Steve Sellers, and “was one of my first priorities,” says Lantz. Lehman Bates, pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church and a member of the African American Pastors Council, Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci and Sin Barreras, a nonprofit that works with mostly Hispanic immigrants, helped create the guide.

lehmanBates-ezeBates wanted to work on a tool for traffic stops, which have become a “flash point” between citizens and police. “As a pastor and as an African-American, because of our history and because of current events, it was important for me to have this type of tool so those types of incidents do not occur,” he says.

For constitutional attorney and Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead, who just published his latest commentary, “All the Ways You Can Comply and Still Die During An Encounter with Police,” not informing people of their rights is a glaring omission. “You don’t have to stop to talk to police,” he says. “You can walk away. If stopped while driving, you don’t have to automatically open your car for a search.” The pamphlet implies people have to allow pat downs, but police must have “reasonable suspicion” to do so, says Whitehead.

“It stops short of saying: Here are your rights, we can get along as long as you obey the police,” he says. “Case law does not support what is in the brochure.”

And Whitehead wonders why, with nationally known civil liberties groups here, police didn’t ask for some feedback.

Civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel is even more critical. “This is outrageous,” he says. “It should be titled, ‘You Must Be Obedient to the Police.’ Some of it is flatly wrong or deceiving.”

The brochure instructs, “You must not physically resist, obstruct or be abusive toward the police.” According to Fogel, citizens have the right to resist an unlawful arrest or the use of excessive force, and they have the right to curse at a police officer.

Fogel represents plaintiffs alleging racial profiling in three civil lawsuits he filed in February against the county and Albemarle officer Andrew Holmes.

The suits have nothing to do with the pamphlet, the work on which started more than a year ago, according to Lantz.

“Traffic stops are one of the most dangerous things we do,” he says. He’s implementing a “three-minute rule,” in which officers explain why they’re pulling over a driver and that it’s not just about writing tickets, he says.

“It is of vital importance for members of the public to realize that it is both improper and unlawful to resist or obstruct law enforcement in the conduct of their lawful duties,” says Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracci. “The pamphlet also encourages citizens to report any abuse or impropriety that may occur.”    

Currently the department has printed 100 copies of the four-page pocket guide in English and in Spanish, and when there are more, Lantz wants his officers to hand them out.

Critics hope the next printing will have some changes.

“Our community values collaboration, and I hope this pamphlet can be updated through a process that includes people from a range of viewpoints, so that we can make sure information is easily understood and fully explains people’s rights and responsibilities,” says Dreyfus. 

“How about a brochure on how the Albemarle Police Department will respect your constitutional rights?” suggests Fogel. “That would likely foster better cooperation between the PD and the community.”

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