Rudolph Pieters’ son Isaac was in middle school when Pieters started taking him to municipal court to sit in on cases during his son’s summer break.
Together, father and son sat in the back and watched people get sentenced. To this day, they remember the guy who had shoplifted so many times from Walmart that he was was banned from every metropolitan store for life.
“For me it was like, ‘This is what you shouldn’t do. This is what could happen,’ ” said Isaac, now a high school sophomore and a member of the Kansas City Youth Court.
For Pieters, who lives in Raytown, it was not just about helping his son understand that bad behavior has real consequences. The court visits were another entryway into a conversation that he would raise often with his son — that as a black young adult he would have little room for error when it comes to interactions with law enforcement.
“As a person of color, an African-American, we know the history of the adversarial relationship with the law and particular ethnic groups,” Pieters said. “I think one of the things we have to do is arm ourselves with knowledge.”
So on Saturday, Pieters, Isaac and two family friends, LeAhnna Seals, 13, and Erin Seals, 12, woke up early to attend a “Know Your Rights” event hosted by the UMKC School of Law and the Kansas City Youth Court.
The youth court — in which high school volunteers actually represent juveniles, prosecute juveniles for first-time, nonviolent crimes, and hand down sentences — is a Jackson County Family Court diversion program and funded by Jackson County COMBAT.
Attorney Willis Toney and UMKC professor Daniel Weddle spoke to more than 60 parents, teenagers and youth court members about their rights, and the Kansas City Police Department spoke about city ordinances that affect juveniles and what officers expect from citizens during traffic stops.
The seminar was intended to educate youth on the importance of avoiding behavior that automatically escalates situations with law enforcement, such as talking back, not showing hands during a traffic stop or touching a police officer.
But it also aimed to make young people aware of and comfortable with asserting their own rights, event organizer and UMKC law student Dakota Parris said. Topics ranged from freedom of expression at school to rules governing car searches by law enforcement.
“You always have the right to invoke your rights,” Toney, a Kansas City defense lawyer, said to the group.
That’s a message that has been more urgent as officer-involved shootings of black men have received national attention, and law enforcement agencies look for ways to build trust with the community.
“We need to work on repairing the relationship between the police and the community,” said Merrell Bennekin, executive director of the Office of Community Complaints for the Kansas City Police Department.
But he and other police officers also reiterated the importance of staying calm, following directions and not making sudden movements when interacting with police — behavior that automatically puts officers more at ease.
How to interact with police is a conversation Pieters said he and his father never really had. Pieters grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where most citizens and law enforcement officers had brown skin. People didn’t worry about race affecting their experiences with law enforcement, he said.
He came to the United States in 1989 to go to college. Two years later, Los Angeles police beat Rodney King after a high-speed chase, and the ensuing trial and riots thrust the issue of racial bias and police brutality into the spotlight.
Pieters said he began to understand then that he would have to raise his son differently. His strategy would be simple: give police officers no avenue to let any bias, uncertainty or misunderstanding come into play.
“The only way for us to win is to number one, stay out of trouble and number two, present ourselves intelligently and even then, that’s not a guarantee,” Pieters said.
It’s something he’s thought about again and again, after Michael Brown was shot in 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. And more recently when a Georgia police officer was recorded saying, “We only kill black people, right?” to a white female motorist he had pulled over.
“The first impression you give will be the foundation of whatever comes next in your interaction with anyone,” Toney told the teens.
Pieters’ ears perked up.
“Write that down,” he told the kids.
Here are some do’s and don’ts when stopped by the police, according to Kansas City Police Department’s Office of Community Complaints.
In your car...
▪ Upon request, present your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance.
▪ Always keep you hands where they can be seen and do not make any sudden movements.
▪ Never get out of the vehicle unless the officer tells you to do so.
▪ If the police say they have probable cause that a crime has been committed, they may begin to search your car or arrest you.
▪ If you are given a ticket, sign it — it is not an admission of guilt. You can always argue your case in court at a later time. Do not argue with the officer at the scene.
On the street
▪ You are not required to answer any incriminating questions, but failing to truthfully answer simple ones will make the police suspicious and might be deemed a misdemeanor.
▪ If requested, show your identification.
▪ If police have reasonable suspicion that you have a weapon and may be a danger to police or others, they may do a “pat-down” to check. Do not resist.
▪ A person arrested in Missouri for investigation may be held for 24 hours.
In your home
▪ The police do not have the right to enter your home unless they have a search warrant or there is an emergency situation.
▪ If the police say they have a search warrant, ask to see it before letting them enter your home.
▪ If you are arrested in your home, the police can search you and the area around you, which usually means the room.