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Know Your Rights: A Primer on Citizen Responsibility

You’ve probably heard about Netflix’s new, and already most-viewed series, When They See Us, the story of the Central Park 5; five black teens who served multiple years in prison for a brutal rape before finally being exonerated by DNA evidence. The show is crushingly intense, brutal in its graphic attention to the experiences of the boys, who are interviewed by the police in some cases without parents or lawyers present, and who are eventually coached to share stories that implicate each other, even though they’ve never met before.

Which reminds us with blinding certainty: Law enforcement officers make mistakes. Just like all humans, police and prosecutors bring their biases, insecurities and traumas to their encounters. And like all professionals, law enforcement should be questioned and held accountable by their clients.

And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you that we, the people, are their clients. We, the people, who pay their salaries and depend on their services. We provide accountability to law enforcement, not just for ourselves but for others.

If I am seen by a medical provider who acts inappropriately, is unethical, or provides harmful medical advice, it’s my responsibility to the provider’s future patients to report that information. In the same way, knowing our citizen rights when we encounter law enforcement protects the most vulnerable of our population, including people of color, the homeless and the mentally ill.

I exercise my rights not because I have anything to hide but because doing so creates room and normalcy for others to exercise those same rights.

Important facts to know when encountering on-duty law enforcement:

Knowing the above facts, I exercise my rights in any encounter with the police. I do so by:

We’ve given law enforcement truly significant power, including the power to give commands based on assumptions and beliefs, as well as the power to shoot first and ask questions later. Because we’ve given them this power, we don’t get to argue, debate or question their commands in the moment. But don’t forget to eventually ask those questions! Law enforcement officers do not expect citizens to exercise their rights to sue the police after they are detained or arrested without cause. After all, who has the time or money to pursue such a case? But I encourage you to push for justice, not only for yourself, but for vulnerable populations. This is good citizenship. The Department of Justice may even be interested in information you have to share.

Perhaps most importantly for those of us who are rarely stopped by law enforcement ourselves: film the police. The Redding Police Department does not use body cameras for a variety of reasons, including cost and storage space needed for the footage. Remember your power as a citizen to film encounters with the police when you see an interaction that begins to concern you, particularly encounters involving vulnerable populations. Video recordings of on-duty police officers are legal in California as long as you do not disrupt their work while filming.

Do you remember when you were small and never thought to question your parents? One day you got old enough to realize, “hey, they don’t get to be the boss of me all the time!” Perhaps this is your moment to realize the same thing with law enforcement. Respect the police AND establish safe and healthy boundaries with them. Know your rights. Practice good citizenship. Provide accountability.

I was recently stopped at a small internal border patrol checkpoint located some 60 miles from the California/Mexico border. I waited in line, watching as the cars in front of me pulled up to the border patrol officer, immediately pulling their IDs from their wallets and handing them over. When I pulled up I asked, simply, “Am I required to show you ID?” The officer appeared flustered and stated emphatically, “No! But you ARE required to state your citizenship!” (A statement I later discovered was untrue.) I stated my citizenship and moved forward, but the effort it had taken not to comply with the immediate unspoken expectations of law enforcement to produce my ID had startled me. And the importance of doing so, for the sake of others, remains with me still.

If there is ever a show-down between police power and constitutional rights, it is the rights of the people that should always win. This is the real rule of law.

The U.S. Constitution is the nation’s most fundamental law. It codifies the core values of the people. Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: publicly promulgated, equally enforced, independently adjudicated, and consistent with international human rights principles. – US Courts.gov