By Judith L. Cochran
OCEANSIDE–The number of violent interactions across the country between young black males and police officers is increasing at alarming rates. These confrontations frequently end in the death of Black teenagers.
In an effort to decrease these troubling statistics, the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation, in conjunction with the Legal Aid Society of San Diego and Marne Foster, president of the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education, developed a workshop to be presented at San Diego high schools to educate young people of color on what to do and what not to do if stopped by a policeman.
The Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, a non-profit organization and the largest group of African American judges, attorneys and legal professionals in San Diego, was founded in 1976 as the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County. In 1982, the name was changed to Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association in recognition of San Diego’s first African American Deputy City Attorney, Municipal Court judge, Superior Court judge and Federal District Court judge.
In December of 2014, they created a second corporate organization, the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Foundation, in an effort to serve the best interests of the City of San Diego’s black Community.
The first workshop was recently held at Crawford High School, located approximately two miles from City Heights. The campus boasts an extremely diverse student population of 1,200 young people, according to principal Ana Maria Alvarez. Forty-four percent of the students are Latino and 18% are African American. There is a large group of refugees from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America, many of whom are recent immigrants who were not educated in their home countries. There are 35 languages and 32 dialects spoken. Alvarez was very optimistic about the workshop, explaining that while the campus has its own police department are virtually no serious problems with the officers assigned to the school, interaction with the cops on the street are likely to be vastly different. Teachers and parents were invited to participate.
The workshop was facilitated by attorney Dennis W. Dawson, current president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, and attorney Deanne Arthur, Association member. Under the banner of “HOW TO SAFELY AND EFFECTIVELY COMMUNICATE WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT,’ students were informed of many of the tools for survival and rules of engagement when stopped and approached by a police officer.
After a warm and spirited welcome by school board president Foster, the workshop was opened by Attorney Dawson. He began by acting out a skit in which he portrayed a driver visibly annoyed because he had been stopped by a police officer. With a lot of attitude and a lot more mouth, he got out of the car and rapidly approached the officer. Faced with heated aggression, the policeman placed his hand on his gun.
Addressing the students, Dawson highlighted all the things not to do if caught in such a situation, then advised them as to what to do to avoid physical contact and arrest–or worse. “If you see a siren behind you, pull over, park and remain calm. Ask any passengers in the back to place their hands on the seat in front of them. Roll down your window, then place your hands in plain sight of the officer. Do NOT get out of the car and do NOT, under any circumstances, raise your voice or touch the officer!” Dawson emphasized the importance of respecting the authority of the policeman. “The officer has a right to do his or her job and really wants to go home to family after the shift.”
He talked briefly about legal rights and how to utilize them. “You have a right to remain silent. If you are asked any questions, firmly but calmly respond that you choose to remain silent. You have a right to refuse a search of your person or car. You can say you don’t consent to a search of your body or your car. To protect yourself, politely ask if you are being detained or under arrest. If so, you have the right to ask for an attorney. If not, you have the right to leave. Do so quietly. If you are arrested, ask for an attorney and don’t answer any questions until attorney is present.“
Upon arriving home, Dawson suggested telling parent(s). Without delay, he continued, write a detailed report on everything that happened: the officer’s badge and car numbers, time you were stopped, how you were approached, names of witnesses, etc. If you were injured, take and include photos and seek medical attention. If you believe your legal rights were infringed, file a complaint with Internal Affairs or a civilian board. You are not guilty until found so in court. Attorney Arthur spoke more in depth on legal rights and the value of a good attorney.
In closing, President Foster asked the students to share what they learned with their peers. “Each one of you needs to reach one and teach one because each of your lives matters.”
Did the students find the workshop effective? Matthew Allen, an 18-year-old senior, found it “informative” and “valuable.” He is trying to get his driver’s license and hopes to buy a car soon. “If I am stopped, I now know that I should roll down the window, be silent and NEVER get out of the car unless the officer tells me to. I don’t want to make the officer uneasy–he has a gun!”