The New Rochelle Branch of the NAACP in conjunction with Xenia Lodge #50, F & A.M. (Prince Hall Masons) and Bethesda Baptist Church presented a forum Friday at Bethesda Baptist Church on "What to do When You Are Stopped By the Police". The evening, two years in the making, was billed as an opportunity to learn how to respond in a way to de-escalate the situation and preserve your rights and safety.
The panel included six active duty police officers, one retired police officer and a lawyer from the Westchester County DA's office. Jurisdictions represented on the panel included Pelham, Mount Vernon, New York City, the MTA and Westchester County.
Rev. Timothy McKnight gave the invocation and benediction. McKnight, an ordained minister, is also a detective with the New Rochelle Police Department but did not participate in his role as a police officer.
Ronald H. Williams, President of the New Rochelle Branch of the NAACP served as the moderator for the event.
From left to right, participants on the panel were Police Officer Ryan Carden of the Pelham Police Department, Susan Brown-Bill Vega, Director of Community Affairs for the Westchester County District Attorney, Police Officer Christopher Neal of the New York City Police Department, Detective Everett Johnson of the Mount Vernon Police Department, Rev. Paul Weather, a retired officer from the Westchester County Police Department, Detective Sergeant Robert Scott of the Mount Vernon Police Department, Detective Task Sergeant Anthony McEachin of the Mount Vernon Police Department, Police Officer Gregory Marable of the MTA Police and Detective Carl Williams of the New York City Police Department.
Several panelists stressed the need to avoid being confrontational and to be especially cautious during a traffic stop.
"A traffic stop is the most serious situation for officers," said Det. Scott of the Mount Vernon Police Department who advised to act accordingly and treat the situation seriously. Several officers noted that even if you did not do anything wrong, there may be a radio call out looking for someone matching the description of you or your vehicle so be calm and respectful.
"Put your windows down, turn your lights on and keep your hands on the steering wheel," said Rev. Weather, formerly of the Westchester County PD.
Detective Everett Johnson said people might be in the wrong place at the wrong time and not even know it.
"You might be in a known problem area," said Johnson who noted that body language is also important.
"Avoid yelling, making hand gestures or putting your hands in your pocket," said Johnson. "If you are asked questions, answer them simply and directly".
Several questions to the panel concerned "probable cause", "reasonable suspicion" and a request to produce ID without "reasonable suspicion" when asked by police.
"If they are asking then they do not have probable cause," said Chris Neal of the NYPD. "If I have 'probable cause' I am not asking I am going to go ahead with the search."
"Reasonable suspicious is based on what I can see and smell, said Rev. Weather. "If I can smell alcohol on your breath I can infer that you have been drinking".
ADA Brown-Bill Vega recommended being familiar with a list of "Do's and Don'ts" provided by organizations like the ACLU.
"Ask 'why?', said Brown-Bill Vega but be respectful.
Brown-Bill Vega pointed out that having any sort of electronic device in your hand is now grounds to pull you over. A change in the law last year made using an electronic device a "primary offense".
"It used to be that if you were pulled over for something else, you could get a second summons for using your cell phone", said said. "Now they can pull you over just for the device." She noted that under the law, officers may infer that if you are holding a device you are using it.
She also noted that there is no law requiring a person to show ID without reasonable cause.
The biggest concerns had to do with racial profiling with many in attendance sharing their experience with racial profiling by police.
Every panelists agreed on the need to file a report in the event of suspected racial profiling.
"The Westchester County Police Department does not play games with officer complaints," said Weather.
"Every complaint gets followed up on," said Detective Sergeant Scott, who works in internal affairs at the Mount Vernon Police Department.
The officers stressed that residents need to make sure to not only file complaints but to follow up and be available during the investigation.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original article misidentified Tim McKnight's rank as Sergeant and indicated that he had been a co-moderator of the event. This article has been edited to reflect the correct rank and to note that Detective McKnight's role as an ordained minister was to say a prayer before and after the panel discussion took place. He did not participate in the panel discussion not did he identify himself as a New Rochelle police officer or otherwise imply that NRPD was participating in the event or endorsed the event. We regret any confusion this may have caused.