Know Your Rights event held to teach VCU students about police encounters

Chip Lauterbach

Contributing Writer

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu

Contributing Writer

The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (TAP) gave an interactive talk with VCU students about how to protect their individual rights in face-to-face situations with police.

Community outreach activists Reem Ali, Rosa Molina and Carlton Webb spoke to students Nov. 28, reviewing several scenarios — including traffic stops — to give students a chance to better understand what to do if confronted by police. Students were instructed to keep answers to police short and respectful and ask if they were free to go if they were not being detained.

“These are just simple tips that will help you walk away from an encounter with law enforcement,” Ali said. “Your life is worth knowing this information.”

Some of the other topics included when police can search an individual and when people can deny consent to be searched. In Virginia, people have the right to film the police, which adds another layer of accountability — in case officers misremembers or misrepresents the events.

“If you or your friends encounter a situation, [you] can stand there and take your phone out and film the police, they can not stop you,” Webb said. “However, it is your responsibility to remember to not interfere with whatever it is that the police are doing because that can cause some problems for you.”    

Liz Coston, an instructor of the “social justice organizing” class at VCU — of which the presenters are members — also attended the event. They emphasized the timeliness of the event and the importance of giving back to the community by ensuring people know their rights in instances of police contact.

“The idea of hosting a ‘Know Your Rights’ training was actually driven by the student groups,” Coston said. “They learned about a lot of the inequality that’s happening in policing and they were concerned that a lot of people might not know what to do when they actually encounter the police; that could [possibly] lead to situation escalating between citizens and police.”

TAP has made efforts to improve relations between Richmonders and the police over the past year. Currently, TAP is making attempts to obtain previously withheld policing data from the Richmond Police Department. The lengthy process culminated most recently in a meeting with the mayor and the police chief — an undertaking that yielded no results.

The ‘Know Your Rights’ training, in Coston’s own words, was “a form of service to the community.” They highlighted the ways that community members could learn from the talk.

“When people encounter the police, they’re not sure what their rights are,” Coston said. “If their rights are somehow violated, they don’t know what to do after the fact.”

Coston provided, for example, the avenue of filing complaints with the police — something she said most people do not do because they do not realize it is one of the forms of recourse they can take after they have had an uncomfortable encounter with police.

“Informing people of what their rights are is one of the first steps in getting them to advocate on their own behalf,” Coston said.

The event is the first in a series of similar ones that will also occur on campus. The next talk will be on Dec. 12 and will be offered in both English and Spanish.

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