CHICAGO — Like a lot of people, Sheldon Smith just can’t believe that the New York City police officer who choked Eric Garner to death didn’t get charged with murder.
Still, watching that horrible video he recognized one thing about Garner’s reaction during his confrontation with police that might have been a fatal mistake.
“When the officer approached, Eric Garner started backing away and putting his hands up,” Smith said. “Now I feel the police were wrong to do what they did, but in that situation you have to do what they ask.”
Smith says he’s heard too many horror stories of police brutality from young black men who attend his 12-week course that aims to teach them how to be better fathers and find better jobs.
Part of the curriculum taught by his foundation, The Dovetail Project, includes a “Street Law” class aimed at teaching young men ways to avoid escalating conflicts with police to the point they become life-threatening — the case of Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as the most recent examples.
“It’s important to talk about this right now because of what’s happening around the nation and to keep a spotlight on the issue [of police brutality] in the urban community because it’s not going away,” he said.
“Right now on a scale of 1 to 10, the volatility of the relationship between the community and police is a 10. As black men we all know to be careful dealing with police. Not all officers are bad, but some of them who are make the relationship with the African-American community worse," he said.
In his classes, Smith preaches the importance of common sense, teaches students to know their rights under the law and suggests being strategic when dealing with an officer you think is being abusive.
Smith said you can describe part of his “Street Law” class as how to avoid getting caught in a bad spot with police.
I asked Smith to offer some examples in hopes they might help Chicagoans who fear harassment or worse during encounters with police.
This is what he said:
• Stay calm. When you’re not calm you’re not thinking straight. And if an officer perceives signs of agitation it could lead to the police taking aggressive action.
• Never demand a police officer’s badge number. That’s tipping off an aggressive officer that you plan to file a report against him. That’s like threatening an officer’s livelihood and could escalate a situation. Instead, just look at his badge, memorize the four-digit number and file a report.
• If you get pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel and don’t reach for anything — your wallet, insurance card or vehicle registration — without asking permission. Only bad things can happen if an officer mistakenly suspects you’re reaching for a weapon.
• Never question officers in a dark alley about tactics you think might be unjust. Smith tells his students the story of a time he was confronted by an aggressive officer at a gas station and was able to point to a surveillance camera as a way to defuse the conflict.
• Speak respectfully to officers and follow their directions. “If an officer says, ‘Put your hands up and turn around for me,’ do what he asks you to do. If he says, ‘I need you to be quiet,’ don’t make a sound. Police are the law of the land no matter how you cut it,” Smith said.
• Know your rights and calmly and respectfully assert them. For instance, know that you are required to identify yourself at an officer’s request, but he needs to have a reason to search you on the street. “Don’t be so scared that you give your rights away,” Smith said.
• Any time you feel your civil rights have been violated or an officer used excessive force, file a report at the police district, ask to speak to a sergeant, or call internal affairs. And follow up on your complaint.
Sometimes, Smith said, students who have criminal backgrounds describe their interactions with police as a cat-and-mouse game.
“They’ll say, ‘I was selling drugs and the police knew I was selling drugs, but I didn’t have any drugs on me when he harassed me,” Smith said. “And our response to that is, ‘Don’t sell drugs.’ The officer isn’t harassing you. The man is doing his job.”
Smith, who turned his own life around after being arrested for armed robbery as a boy, said he hopes that the protests related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner lead to reforms that lead to a better relationship between minority communities and police.
“When you look at cases like Eric Garner, people are upset. But they’re also scared that it seems police can be wrong and get away with murder. When that happens there’s nothing left to do but protest,” Smith said. “We’re trying to help young men before it comes to that.”
For more information about Smith's "Street Law" class or The Dovetail Project click here.
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