The shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., happened on the other side of the state, but it churned up deep-seated frustrations about police relations within the black community on this side of the state.
So much so that the Rev. Emanuel Cleaver III, senior pastor at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, pulled together a panel of police officers and politicians, including Mayor Sly James, to talk to the public on Saturday afternoon to answer this question: What do I do if I’m stopped by police?
“Young black boys don’t know what to do when a police officer stops them,” he wrote on his Facebook invitation to the event. “If I run they will shoot, if I put my hands up in surrender they will shoot, and if I resist they will definitely shoot. What are the other options?”
The short answer from the panelists was that the best thing to do is to comply with an officer’s request and not escalate the situation. The first few minutes of interaction with the police officer will set the tone for the interaction, people were told. If you think you’ve been wrongly stopped, the time to debate it is not when the officer is standing next to your car.
“Getting it behind you is the most important thing,” said Kansas City police Deputy Chief Robert Kuehl. “There is a time and a place to hold the officer accountable.”
Complying with what the officer asks helps keep the situation under control, said Kuehl. The officer doesn’t know that you are unarmed, he said. “We get hurt or killed by what people have in their hands or what they do with their hands,” said Kuehl.
The mayor put it succinctly: Say as little as possible, give the officers what they need “and go on your way.”
Cleaver set a hospitable tone by saying that he didn’t want the afternoon to turn into a gripe session. But that didn’t stop Jasmine Taylor from getting emotional when she stood at the microphone and told what happened to her during a traffic stop near 47th Street and Gillham Road on Thursday.
Waving a sheaf of papers full of eyewitness accounts, the graphic designer stated the officer’s badge number and alleged that the stop landed her in the emergency room with injuries to her face and knee. She sported a bruise on her right cheek.
Kuehl told her that he had received her complaint and had started the process of looking into it.
“How do we know we’re under arrest when they don’t tell you?” Taylor asked.
“They do have to tell you that you are under arrest,” Kuehl said.
Taylor said afterward that hearing all the advice on how to interact with police was good, “but they need to tell the police how to interact with us. The problem with ‘dealing with it later’ is you have to take off work, and you have to pay fines, and you might have to hire a defense lawyer.”
The session provided other civics lessons as well.
An officer can’t just stop you because he or she has a “hunch,” the crowd was told.
If you don’t agree with what the officer is telling you, you can ask for his or her supervisor, just as you would a manager in a department store if you’re getting bad service.
Merrell Bennekin from the Police Department’s Office of Community Complaints, a civilian oversight agency, walked people through the process of filing complaints with his group.
About 150 people attended the event, an older crowd largely lacking the all-important intended audience of young black men. As people settled into pews, video screens at the front of the church showed stories about unarmed black men killed across America in recent months.
The killing of Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 has reignited frustration over other high-profile cases of unarmed black men killed by police and others.
On July 17, Eric Garner, 43, died after being confronted by police on Staten Island for allegedly selling cigarettes illegally. The New York City medical examiner ruled that a police officer’s choke hold on Garner killed him.
On Aug. 11 in Los Angeles, Ezell Ford, 25, was fatally shot while walking to his home. Police allegedly shot him in the back after he laid down on the ground as ordered. Police accounts suggest he was shot after he tried to grab an officer’s gun during a struggle. Some witnesses say there was no struggle between the unarmed man, who suffered from mental issues, and the police.
And of course, there was Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old killed in an altercation in Florida with neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012.
“I’m sick of unarmed black men being shot by police,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick told a reporter recently when asked his opinion about the Ferguson case. “I’m sick of the lawlessness on the streets. I think everybody’s tired of it. When are we gonna get through with this kind of thing?”
Missouri Rep. Randy Dunn, a Kansas City Democrat who participated in Saturday’s event, has heard the anger over Brown’s death. He hoped that discussions like the one at Cleaver’s church would help open the eyes of those outside the black community to what’s going on within it.
Because even young black men who grow up to be state representatives have experienced “driving while black,” a phrase that refers to the racial profiling of black drivers.
Dunn said he got pulled over on a traffic stop in Kansas City about five years ago. He was wearing his hair in dreadlocks at the time and still remembers what the officer told him.
“Because you don’t look like a criminal, I’ll let you go.”