Rocky Mount police to host citizens’ rights forum

Law enforcement agencies in Edgecombe and Nash counties have invited residents to participate in a communitywide discussion this week that will focus on their rights during encounters with police.

The agencies decided last month to organize the event after the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., last year raised tensions nationwide. The incidents and others around the nation sparked demonstrations with crowds chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “I Can’t Breathe” and a “Black Lives Matter” social media campaign.

The Rocky Mount event on Thursday also will cover basic rules in dealing with law enforcement officers and what to do when you encounter one on the street or in your car.

“We hope to educate our citizens and build relationships and trust in the community,” said Cpl. Brad Summerlin, a Rocky Mount police spokesman

While Ferguson brought the subject new attention, conversations about how to act during an encounter with a police officer are nothing new, particularly in black communities. Last February, Kenneth Cooper, pastor of Christian Faith Baptist Church in South Raleigh, invited a state trooper to come speak with young African-American men in his church about how to conduct themselves during a traffic stop to prevent conflict and lessen the potential for controversy.

“Some of the things were: Put both your hands on the steering wheel to show the officer you’re not hostile. That allows him to not feel threatened,” Cooper said. “And before reaching into your glove compartment, let the officer know that you’re getting what they asked for.”

The event was part of the church’s Black History Month commemoration, which focused on young African-American men. Cooper thinks black men all too often encounter systemic racism and deadly violence in America, particularly from police. He opted for a historical perspective.

“We looked at Emmett Till until the present day,” Cooper said, referring to the black 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. “I’m just tired of our young men not being regarded as valuable.”

Cooper described the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as a tragic confirmation.

“Ferguson and New York, it’s a sad thing,” he said. “Mistakes can happen. But just because a mistake happens doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for it. Deliberate or not, another man’s life was taken. An officer should not be able to take a life unless his is threatened.”

Thurday’s meeting in Rocky Mount will be hosted by the police department, the city’s human relations commission and the Edgecombe and Nash counties’ sheriff’s offices. Summerlin said it will kick off with a power point presentation and a panel discussion on the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which ensure rights of free speech and assembly and prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures.

“The community will write down questions as the panel members present their materials,” Summerlin said. “After the presentation, a facilitator will read the questions to the panel. It’s very formal.”

‘Cardinal rules’

The PowerPoint presentation will cover the “basic cardinal rules” for citizens to be aware of if they are stopped by a law officer on the street, in their car or home.

“Show respect, cooperate and be honest,” said Summerlin, who added that the state law is the same no matter if an officer approaches someone in the street, their car or home.

“There are some misconceptions where people think they don’t have to hand over their license to an officer at a traffic stop,” Summerlin said. “State law requires you to hand over your license and registration.”

The topics of discussion by the panel members will include the law department’s arrest policies, search and seizure guidelines, citizens’ First and Fourth Amendment rights, and the elements that comprise reasonable suspicion, probable cause and the use of force.

Summerlin said the panel will also inform people about the steps required to file a complaint or commendation about an officer.

“It’s not at the time of arrest or while receiving a citation, not then,” he said.

Lonnette Williams, the outspoken chair of the Raleigh Central Citizens Advisory Council and president of the South Park Association, said ensuring the rights of residents in her community has been an underlying problem, not just among the police, but among the entire city staff.

“They don’t seem to understand that citizens have the right to question decisions and insist on transparency,” she said.

In the aftermath of Ferguson, Williams said CAC members also discussed the two New York officers who were gunned down in their patrol car.

“We were concerned about groups that may hurt police officers because of their frustration,” she said. “We said a special prayer for our officers.”