Students crowded into the front rows and asked a panel of local law enforcement officials specific, and sometimes pointed, questions about police protocol during routine traffic stops, search-and-seizures and arrests during the Know Your Rights forum on Sept. 14.
The event was hosted by the VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA), VCU PD, the Richmond branch of the NAACP and the Delta Upsilon Chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity.
Jewlyus Grigsby, president of Delta Upsilon, moderated the discussion with OMSA Director Yolanda Avent. Grigsby said he approached Avent with the idea after the spate of police-involved shootings of black men came to a head over the summer with the high-profile deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
“My inspiration for this event came from seeing all of the events going on over the summer,” Grigsby said. “I wanted to offer a space, or a program, for students who came back from the summer and didn’t have the chance to talk with law enforcement.”
Avent said she was already in the process of organizing a similar event after receiving requests from students, so she and Grigsby merged to form ideas into the Know Your Rights panel.
“As we start a new school year in a climate that is very heavily charged around police, interactions with police and brutality, I think it’s very important that we have conversations in our communities as we look to strengthen those relationships,” Avent said. “To build trust, but also know what your rights and your responsibilities are when we’re interacting in these situations.”
Richmond Police Major Sydney Collier said discussions like this are absolutely necessary to maintain a healthy dialogue between citizens and police.
“We find that there’s a breakdown in the conversation,” Collier said. “People don’t talk anymore. Everybody uses social media and texting as their means of communication. We’re starting to lose that art of language and speaking to each other to straighten out our differences.”
One student asked the panel to define the rights of a victim of unlawful aggression by a police officer.
“How do you defend yourself or de-escalate the situation without it becoming illegal?” the student asked.
Collier said the key word is “de-escalation” and repeatedly emphasized the “comply first, complain later” practice with regard to police interaction.
Collier added that the department’s Internal Affairs division processes complaints about officer misconduct, and the division might then take punitive action against the officer or recommend re-training.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Davis Powell responded to a follow-up question, positing a situation where victims of alleged injustice either disagree with IA decisions or don’t trust the department to perform an internal review.
Powell said in these cases citizens can always go to court.
“It doesn’t end with the stop,” Powell said. “If you get charged with a crime there’s a judge, there’s a jury that’s going to hear your case, and ultimately, anything that the officer (accuses you of), as far as obstruction of justice or assault and battery… you get to present a case too.”
In contrast, RPD Deputy Chief Steve Drew and VCU Police Chief John Venuti both emphasized citizens ultimately have the right to resist unlawful arrest during a situation where a victim may or may not live to see their day in court.
Grigsby also fielded questions submitted anonymously through Twitter using the hashtag #KNROMSAVCU.
The first question had to do with police engagement with the LGBTQ community. The VCU PD held an open forum late last month to solicit feedback on recent changes the department made to better protect LGBTQ students. That feedback would be incorporated in Safe Zone training sessions for new recruits and old hands alike.
Venuti said the identities of 43 Safe Zone-trained officers, or “allies,” are posted on the department’s website. These officers also wear a Safe Zone pin.
Venuti also said all new recruits undergo homelessness advocacy training and transgender training with input from members of the VCU transgender community.
The topic of community-based policing, which Collier referred to as a “buzzword,” was also discussed as a strategy for strengthening relationships between local citizens and police.
Venuti said the VCU PD has a very student-centered focus. He described partnerships and collaborations with student and local organizations as a major contributor to the success of the department as a whole.
“We work with just about any group at VCU that wants to work with us,” Venuti said. “We work with SGA (Student Government Association), we work with student groups, we work with fraternities and sororities.”
Venuti also said he expects all his officers to be an active part of the VCU community and reflecting the diversity of that community is a vital aspect of the department’s success going forward.
Of the 14 new recruits this year, 57 percent reflect underrepresented demographics within the VCU PD, which includes women and minorities, Venuti said.
Grigsby said questions submitted via Twitter that went unanswered during the panel discussion would be directed to Venuti and answers will be posted on the OMSA website.
Collier left the audience with a final piece of advice.
“Social media is not a dictionary. It’s not the end-all, be-all. When you guys see stuff on social media, don’t just believe that in itself,” Collier said. “Read. Look. Search. Find out what it is before you react to a situation, so that you know you’re reacting in the right way.”
Jim Thomma, Contributing Writer