Your right to know: Police help you interact with police

Charlottesville police and the Office of Human Rights are handing out pamphlets to help citizens understand their rights. Charlottesville police and the Office of Human Rights are handing out pamphlets to help citizens understand their rights.

Amid a worldwide trend of alleged over-policing and law-enforcement scrutinization, the Charlottesville Police Department and the city’s Office of Human Rights hope a pocket-sized pamphlet they’re distributing will be a saving grace when it comes to interacting with cops.

The pamphlet, called Your Rights and Responsibilities, is available at a multitude of local venues, including City Hall, several churches and schools. Topics range from what to do if you’re stopped for questioning or in your car, or if you’re questioned about your immigration status.

The idea for the pamphlet was formed by the Disproportionate Minority Contact task force a few years ago, says Charlottesville Police Captain Wendy Lewis, “so citizens and police know how to interact, and particularly for citizens to know what their rights are when they’re stopped by police.”

Charlene Green with the Office of Human Rights says she’s been working on the guide for two years, deciding how much information to include and to whom it should be directed.

“We wanted this to be placed in the hands of every citizen,” she, along with those at the police department, eventually decided. “The intent is that we want any kind of stop—if you have to be stopped—to be respectful and safe. Chances are higher that [that] will happen if people know what their rights are.”

According to the guide, “the first words spoken by either the police officer or the citizen involved in a stop may very well determine the tone of the encounter and sometimes, even the outcome.” If you’re stopped for questioning, it suggests staying calm without resisting or obstructing the police, even if you are innocent.

“You have the right to remain silent and cannot be punished for refusing to answer questions,” the pamphlet continues. It says you should tell the officer if you wish to remain silent.

Likewise, while you don’t have to consent to a search of yourself or your belongings, police are legally allowed to “pat down” your clothing if they suspect a weapon.

“You should not physically resist but you have the right to refuse consent for any further search after the pat down,” according to the guide. “If you do consent, it can affect you later in court.”

But not everyone agrees with the advice offered in the pamphlet.

“There are many people concerned about police stops, given the racially disparate local data,” says Emily Dreyfus, the community outreach and education director at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “It would be helpful if the brochure was more clear that police officers must have a reasonable suspicion that a person committed a crime before they can make a stop.”

Through a Street Smarts workshop, her organization, which will not distribute the pamphlets, helps people understand their rights when interacting with police. LAJC distributes a fact sheet it developed called Your Rights with the Police, and it also shares a brochure produced by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel says that information in the pamphlet isn’t presented clearly, and while police may be advising citizens of the wisest ways to interact, they aren’t necessarily teaching them their rights.

“The good part and the bad part of this seems to be the involvement of the police department in writing this,” he says. Fogel believes rights and responsibilities aren’t fairly distinguished in the pamphlet and some of the advice is downright bad.

For example, the pocket guide says “if you are not a U.S. citizen and an immigration agent requests your immigration papers, you must show them if you have them with you.” Fogel says he would advise against doing so and says the illegal immigrant with papers disproving his status could and should opt to remain silent.

Fogel agrees with Dreyfus that the pamphlet makes it unclear that police should only frisk someone if they have good reason to believe the person is armed and dangerous, and not just a hunch. But the brochure says police only need to suspect a weapon to initiate a pat down.