Residents of Westhaven, which has one of the highest violent crime rates in the city, have started to see a more constant police presence in their neighborhood over the last month—at the same time a nonprofit is teaching kids their rights in police encounters.
Charlottesville Police officers assigned to the housing project have gotten new marching orders—get out of their squad cars, walk through the neighborhood and talk to people. It’s part of a series of steps the department hopes will foster closer relationships with the largely African-American neighborhoods throughout the city.
As the unrest over police relations continues to grow throughout the country, Captain Wendy Lewis says local police are striving to connect with the African-American communities in the city.
Residents at community forums at Friendship Court, Westhaven, South First Street and Blue Ridge Commons have voiced a desire for closer police-community relations and observed that the relationship can be overwhelmingly negative if the only time people interact with the police is when officers are called to respond to a volatile situation.
Lewis agrees, and says officers are urging Westhaven residents to contact them with any needs whatsoever, whether it’s fixing a broken swing on the playground or getting a driver’s license or a bus pass. This summer, officers visited each of the 126 public housing homes in Westhaven, talking to people and leaving cards on residents’ doors that have the officers’ contact information along with an introductory message, and, says Lewis, they’ve gotten a good response so far.
As officers became more of an everyday sight in Westhaven, the nonprofit Legal Aid Justice Center held a workshop entitled Street Smarts at the end of July. Ten African-American fifth through eighth graders, who live in the neighborhood, showed up to learn about their legal rights when interacting with the police, as well as when and how to use them.
In exchange for being allowed to observe the workshop, C-VILLE agreed to not use the names or any identifying information about the children to allow them to speak freely. Emily Dreyfus, the outreach director for Legal Aid’s JustChildren program, and Mario Salas, an attorney with JustChildren, hosted the event.
Dreyfus started the workshop by asking the kids what they think the role of police officers is.
One girl immediately pipes up: “You want us to say what they’re supposed to do or are doing?”
“Either one,” replies Dreyfus.
The girl explains that police are supposed to be there to keep people safe. Dreyfus asks her if she wants to say what she sees actually happening. More quietly, but without hesitation, the girl says, “They’re beating up people.”
Several other kids sitting around the table nod in agreement.
Captain Lewis, who was not at the workshop, told C-VILLE later it saddens her to know some kids in Charlottesville fear the police. She says police are trying to heal that relationship with children, in part, by creating lasting bonds with the adults in the community.
“If adults fear the police, then certainly the children will as well,” says Lewis.
In the workshop, Dreyfus stresses that while most cops are there to help them, it is important for the kids to know what their rights are and “how you can be as safe as you possibly can.”
Salas asks the children how they would respond if a cop stopped them on the street and asked for their ID or their home address.
One says that the police stopped him and a group of his friends while they were hanging out. They cooperated, he says, “But I think if we didn’t, it would just make the situation worse for us.”
Another child says she would have told the officer, “Mind his business.”
Salas tells the group it’s best not to be rude if they choose not to give the police their information, because it can make the interaction more confrontational than it already is.
Instead, over the course of two hours, Dreyfus and Salas teach the kids how to use phrases like: “Am I free to go?”; “I want to help, but I don’t want to talk, I want a lawyer” and “I do not consent to a search.” They cover a wide range of scenarios ranging from stop-and-frisks and searching a backpack, to Miranda rights and warrants.
“For the most part, you always have the right to not say anything,” says Salas. “You don’t have to give the police officer your name, you don’t have to give them your identification if they ask you for it, except in really limited circumstances.”
The important thing to be aware of, Salas stresses, is the consequences of choosing not to talk to the officer.
They also advise the kids to always ask to speak to their parents and a lawyer if they’re detained by the police.
Dreyfus explains to the group why there are more police in their neighborhood. “The idea is that they will get to know you and your families and everybody else that lives around here and be able to keep the neighborhood safer by having those relationships,” says Dreyfus.
One girl says that she was outside playing recently and a cop who was walking by came up and started talking to her. She says he was friendly and she felt comfortable around him.
That’s what city police are hoping for, and Lewis says the aim is to sustain that level of interaction and cooperation, and duplicate their efforts in the South First Street neighborhood in the near future.