By Robert Leitner
There is potential for tragedy every time you encounter a law enforcement officer, said a retired police sergeant at the Know Your Civil Rights event on Feb. 9.
“The gun is on the officer,” said Sgt. De Lacy Davis. “It’s a danger to the officer if he is disarmed, and it could be a danger to you if it is misused. I don’t want you to have an encounter that isn’t a pleasant one, and I want you to walk away with your limbs and your life intact.”
Police officers killed 1,000 people in 2015, and blacks were five times more likely to be killed than whites. Only 36 officers were killed in non-accidental firearm fatalities in 2015, Davis said in a Black History Month event held in Sweigart Auditorium.
“I expected when I first looked at this number [of officers killed] 10 years ago for it to be a high number, a huge number, based on the behavior in urban, rural and poor communities by the police,” he said.
Instead, the proportion was small.
“Yes, there is danger inherent to the job,” he said. “But disproportionately what we are doing in law enforcement to males of color — and people in general — is unacceptable.”
Injustices by law enforcement agencies are happening all over the country, including here in New Jersey. The federal government threatened to sue Newark Police Department in 2015 because it was determined that there was a pattern and practice of abuse in the department toward the citizens, said Davis.
“Ninety-nine percent of police brutality complaints go uninvestigated in central New Jersey,” he said.
“Inherently law enforcement is white, male-dominated, racist, sexist and homophobic. Now, I know in college, when someone gives you a hypothesis, you need to test the theory. So all I want you to do is go back to your community and see how many police officers that you know are openly gay. And I will tell you very few because law enforcement won’t tolerate them. I know a bunch — black, white, Latino, Asian and women—but they are not coming out because the culture won’t let them exist.”
Although there are many good cops, Davis said that just one bad cop can influence an entire police force.
“Try sticking a rotten apple in a bunch of apples, and see what happens to the other apples in the basket a few weeks later,” he said. “It spoils the entire bunch.”
He questioned the ethics of some officers and prosecutors who are involved in the Criminal Justice System. Prosecutors often tell officers what to say when asked specific questions while they are testifying in court.
“I’m going to tell you point-blank what law enforcement doesn’t like to hear,” he said. “We are taught to test a lie early in our career. ‘What do you mean, De Lacy Davis?’ What happens is that a prosecutor prepares you for a case, and says, ‘I am not going to tell you what to say.’ But if I ask you this question and if it’s true, you might say this is what happened.”
In order to protect themselves from the possible dangers citizens could experience during encounters with law enforcement, people need to know how to act when stopped by the police, he said. But just knowing the rights given to citizens may not be enough. “What good is knowing your rights when you are in an alley with a bad cop?” he said.
Davis argued that encounters with law enforcement officers don’t have to escalate into a war. Instead, he said, people should think about a stop as a battle they don’t necessarily have to fight.
“War is where you risk it all and you may lose it all, up to and including your life,” he said. “Battle is a fight you can afford to walk away from, run away from, hide from, and live to fight another day.”
Tips for students during a traffic stop
• Turn on interior lights if it’s dark so the officer can see everything
in the vehicle.
• Power down the windows front and back, especially if they are tinted, to increase officers’ visibility.
• Keep your hands on the steering wheel.
• Don’t lean over or move around; the officer might think you are making a threatening gesture.
• Keep silent when receiving a ticket — don’t justify yourself or argue.